Why You Should Radically Raise the Bar

If you’re truly motivated to improve your life, incremental change won’t get you there — not fast enough. What we need is inspiration — something that sparks action, risk taking, and commitment. Often we have some vague notion of what we want in life, but we don’t allow ourselves to dream — let alone dream big.

What's your seemingly impossible dream? What will inspire you to radically raise the bar?

If you set your goals ridiculously high and it’s a failure, you will fail above everyone else’s success. — James Cameron

“The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that our aim is too low and we reach it.” — Michelangelo

And then we don’t raise the bar again.

Naturally if you’re living your passion, perhaps your biggest challenge is making it happen.  If you’re reading this, it is more likely that you’re not quite there. Maybe you haven’t given up, but you aren’t fully committed either. Raising the bar isn’t about pushing you to burnout. It’s about encouraging you to become more authentic — to fully apply your strengths to what matters to you.

Dream as if you’ll live forever; live as if you’ll die today. — James Dean

What’s stopping you? Thought leader Edward de Bono warns us about complacency:

1. Cozy complacency: You convince yourself that life is adequate as it is. This isn’t about endless second-guessing your life choices or wondering if your life is keeping up with the Joneses. Get out of your comfort zone but avoid rushing to a decision.  Overcome this urge with thoughtful analysis so you avoid looking back at this point in time — wishing you made better choices.

2. Lack-of-vision complacencyYou box yourself into your current situation. You can’t envision living any differently.  You see limitations: family role, financial situation, social class, career or age group.  It’s hard to imagine anything different.  You lack support or the courage to rock the boat. You shut yourself down well before the idea even leaves your head.  Allow time to fantasize; look for stories of lives or lifestyles that appeal to you.  Engage others in brainstorming too, so you’ll explore options you’d normally never consider.

3. Arrogant complacencyYou stubbornly cling to your opinions. This is a difficult one, which requires the toughest examination. Often we rationalize how we’re getting by with too little or we convince ourselves that we’re living the good life.  Only we don’t pay attention to the cracks.  We’re too busy selling our lives to ourselves. Pay close attention to your intuition and early warning signs: a nagging health issue, a quiet whisper that you’d rather get out of what you’re doing, or the years are ticking by.

These examples are overly simplified, yet perilously real. The mind is exceptional at rationalizing our behavior. In the words of Sigmund Freud: to be completely honest with oneself is the very best effort a human being can make.  Remember it’s your life you’re talking about.  Dare to think about what is really important. Live a life worth living — your own view of what that is, that is what matters most.

How do you overcome complacency? What you need is an idea so compelling, so inspiring that it will ignite you out of your comfort zone and into a better future.

Raise the bar by setting your own “big, hairy, audacious goal,” a term coined by business guru Jim Collins, in his book Built to Last.  According to Tom Peters, that isn’t quite enough.  You need a goal that is both clear and compelling.  Some business concepts don’t translate easily into our personal lives, but this idea of setting a big, hairy, audacious goal for yourself — one that you can actually visualize — is certainly worthy of consideration.

A mind once stretched by a new idea never regains its original dimensions. — Anonymous

President Kennedy inspired Americans to care and believe about space travel — in 1961!   He did it with a clear, concise, seemingly unrealistic challenge — to be the first country to land on the moon.  He said, I believe we possess all the resources and talents necessary. But the facts of the matter are that we have never made the national decisions or marshaled the national resources required for such leadership. We have never specified long-range goals on an urgent time schedule, or managed our resources and our time so as to insure their fulfillment.

On a personal level, setting the bar that extreme might seem too grandiose or ridiculous. We muse about an idea, but we don’t make the commitment and set an urgent goal or marshal our resources to insure their fulfillment. 

These all started as a dream, but someone decided to make a commitment:

Mark Twain said it well: A man with a new idea is a crank — until he succeeds.

Anything that really inspires you is likely to be complicated.  So get comfortable making mistakes. Raising the bar not only requires rapid learning but getting comfortable making mistakes. We live in a world that seems to demand flawless perfection every time — a harsh critic of failure.  Coming in second is equivalent to “losing.”

We need to take Samuel Beckett’s advice:  Ever tried.  Ever failed.  No matter.  Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better.

And of course, try again.

Naturally that’s easier said than done. As humans we have a built-in negativity bias! We are hard wired to pay much more attention to problems — dramatically more attention. Thanks to evolution, I guess it makes sense.  To stay alive we simply had to learn to adapt quickly to threats — it meant life or death.  According to author Jonathan Haidt, psychologists consistently find that the human mind reacts to bad things more quickly, strongly, and persistently than to equivalent good things. Positives just don’t carry the same weight. I didn’t want to believe this, but here is just one example, called marriage math by Psychology Today.  After just one negative experience with your spouse it takes at least five positive experiences to patch things up.

So manage your negativity bias and keep a close watch out for motivation killers. Dean Rieck’s blog, 8 Bad Habits that Crush Your Creativity and Stifle Your Success, has practical ideas to overcome your inner critic.  (Although written for the marketing world, Rieck’s ideas are universal.)

Still not convinced to radically raise the bar for yourself?  Take a look at Divine Caroline’s blog:  Ten Lies You’ll Hear Before Pursuing Your Dream. As she says, working hard on your dream will be very hard work, but at least you’ll be devoting your time, creativity, and energy on something that truly matters to you.  That’s positive in itself!  Here’s hoping you find inspiration to dream and do something that you wouldn’t dream of doing…without!

Vision without action is a daydream; action without vision is a nightmare. — Japanese Proverb


Authentic Mentoring

Why mentor someone? Everyone is busy.  No one boasts about having too much time on their hands.  Yet people offer their time, energy, insights and knowledge to others — often complete strangers. These strangers reach out to connect and offer up their best selves to help someone else.

It seems odd perhaps, in a world that emphasizes networking (even speed-networking), to consider the exact opposite — taking the time to truly get to know someone well enough to provide meaningful support. Wanting to give someone advice is easy; you see a problem and you think, “I know how to fix it.”  Offering advice is easy too, especially if you aren’t really responsible for the outcome.  Authentic mentoring, on the other hand, takes time — quality time  — and your commitment to stay connected.

Allow people to see your authentic self

Mentoring is unique; it’s different from life coaching, executive coaching, therapy, and consulting. Each of these options can provide tremendous benefits.  But money changes everything — our expectations and the dynamics of any relationship. As a mentor, you are offering yourself — one person to one person.  Yes, there is always opportunity for mutual benefit; and this is usually the case with good mentor matches.  But an authentic mentor places the emphasis on the person they are mentoring, not the next billable hour, next client referral, or even the drive to reach a specific achievement.

A mentor is there first and foremost to provide support — a deeper leverage point.  It takes a real relationship to feel any significant level of support, to encourage real change. That entails getting together often, maybe weekly, for six months or a year.  You’re there as the conversation deepens and the topics become more complex.  You’re helping someone overcome obstacles and make real progress.

At it’s best, I believe a mentor serves as a role model for being open minded, building trust, and being authentic. This mirrors the teachings from a two-day Mindful Leadership retreat I attended early this month. Bill George, Harvard Business professor and former CEO of Medtronic, and Yongey Mingur Rinpoche, a Buddhist monk, lead discussions about emotional intelligence, happiness, compassion, active listening, self-actualization, building trust — all essential components of authentic mentoring.

Bill George was quite frank, remarkably open during his interactions with us.  In front of 400 people, he was striving to walk his talk.  He was vulnerable and acknowledged his greatest fear: “becoming obsolete.”  At first glance, it might be easy to discount his “vulnerability,” since he has been so successful and still has a great deal of influence.  But that is precisely why he was so intriguing to me.  My experience with successful business people has been that it is too risky for them to remove the mask in public, even slightly, and admit their weaknesses, mistakes, or fears.

George admitted to being impatient and a host of other shortcomings, all leading up to his currently held belief in self-knowledge and self-control, which he said are important if we are to truly lead others. He went further, stating that we need to move beyond the use of our minds (which he said may be overvalued in our society) and use our hearts as well.  This was clearly not your typical left-brain, command and control leadership approach, of which George declared, “It is dead,” or dying, and enlisted us to “help him kill it!”

So how do we become better leaders, better mentors in a world where authenticity is not the norm? I think one of the best ways to accomplish this is for all of us to become authentic mentors. Lead by example. Start changing. Increase EQ (vs. IQ): increase emotional intelligence through self-awareness.  Be open and vulnerable. Share your life story — your successes and failures. Allow others to learn from our entire range of experiences not just our success.  We’re all human.  None of us live perfect lives or can give “perfect advice.” But we can show up with that rare ingredient — authenticity — so we are better equipped to offer thoughtful counsel.

It is tough taking a chance on someone, to seek a mentor to ask for guidance, particularly if they are perceived to have no weakness, no heart.  Keep in mind that the person you are mentoring is constantly asking:  “Can I trust this person?” As we allow others to see our authentic self, they are more likely to trust us, to open up and tell us the truth — about their real issues, deeper problems.  This way we can offer more than a quick-fix or bad advice.  Instead we’re more likely to probe further, listen more, and help someone think through their situations for more meaningful action.

I know that the more I mentor others, the more critically I evaluate myself and learn more about what’s important to me. I take mentoring quite seriously even though I fall short at times. Was I actively listening or running other projects through my head as we were talking?  Was I trying too hard to solve the problem quickly rather than asking better questions? Was I giving feedback in a way they would hear it or was I merely being efficient?  Did they see me consider their feedback to me in a way that showed I took it to heart?  Nothing is more important to me than connecting with someone on what matters most to them. It is an honor that another person opens up to me, sharing their dreams and fears.

I hope you’ll be inspired to mentor someone. You don’t need to be a superstar or a former CEO, just someone who is willing to share their hard-earned experience and real-world insights.  If you’re interested in becoming a mentor, please contact me.  MentorPlanet.com is getting ready to launch.  I hope you’ll be a part of it.  So send me an email and I’ll send you the details. I already have profiles on lots of people that are looking for mentors. Mentors Wanted!

Are you truly committed to your own happiness?

On the surface, the question seems ridiculous. Of course we want to be happy.  Why else would we be working so hard at it — trying to find a better job, the right job, or any job.  Why else would we try so hard to improve our lives — we have a long list of what we think we must do in order to be happy.  We’re smart people; we’ve tried so much, in so many ways. On good days, life seems okay. But there aren’t enough of them, even for many of us that wouldn’t call ourselves unhappy.

But are we making any real progress?  What’s keeping us from being happy? We start with good intentions. We lead such full, hectic lives that we’re often overwhelmed — even depressed at times.  It’s difficult to find time to think about what to do differently — or where to start.  Or we know what we want, but changing feels nearly impossible. How will we find time to do one more thing?  Our careers demand a great deal.  Our personal lives are complicated.  So figuring out what could improve our happiness is illusive.

Our expectations are high. According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness, many of us are extremely frustrated. “We believe that we can do anything and are profoundly disappointed when reality doesn’t meet or even come close to perfection.” To compound the problem, Lyubomirsky states that our independent culture doesn’t provide the support we need to cope with increasing stress and uncertainty. She uses a “happiness continuum,” a scale that ranges from very, very low to very, very high.  Some people that are ranked on the low side minimize success, explaining it away as merely luck or persistence.  Others are more resilient and find support to adapt to even tough challenges.

Learned Optimism author Martin Seligman has been studying optimists and pessimists for 25 years and the theory of “learned helplessness.” He says that:

  • Pessimists believe that bad events are their fault, will last a long time, and undermine everything. They feel helpless (lacking control) and may become depressed.
  • Optimists believe that defeat is merely a temporary setback or a challenge — it doesn’t knock them down. They have a perspective and mindset to move forward.

Fortunately, there is a great deal we can do to overcome pessimism and increase our happiness — even those of us that might not paint ourselves as pessimists but have some tendencies when life gets more challenging. “Pessimism is escapable,” asserts Seligman. Rather than merely adopting “a positive mental attitude,” he provides practical techniques on his website, Authentic Happiness.

Learning new skills help you take action, accomplish more and start feeling better — happier.  Lyubomirsky agrees; she says that 50% of our happiness factor is due to genetics, which we can’t do anything about.  Another 10% is based on circumstances, which come and go.  But a large percentage, 40%, is influenced by what we do and what we think.  This means there is a great deal we can to impact our own happiness. But it isn’t easy.  She cautions, “Aiming for greater happiness is no small endeavor…(it) requires effort and commitment.”

So what does it take for us to change, to actually commit to our own happiness? Let’s start with a little myth busting from FastCo:

What Doesn’t Work

  • Fear doesn’t work — it instills denial.
  • Crisis doesn’t work — perhaps for the same reason fear doesn’t.
  • Facts don’t work — if they don’t match our perceptions, they won’t make sense.
  • Small, gradual change doesn’t work — it takes too long to see results.

What Works

  • Positive visions motivate.
  • Emotional appeals inspire.
  • Radical change to generate quick results.

While Seligman and Lyubomirsky offer proven techniques to help improve your happiness, reading a book about behavior change might not be inspiring enough — or produce quick results. So here’s a tip from that unconventional short-cutter, fast-tracker Tim Ferris (Mr. 4-hour Work Week) who stated in a recent blog: “To learn a skill, I often look — not for the best in the world — but for people who’ve made the greatest progress in the shortest period of time.”

That’s what I’d call a good combination of positive vision and quick results. When changing behavior, momentum matters and milestones matter. Ferris’s blog featured Leo Babauta, author of The Power of Less, who believes:  “The only way you’ll form long-lasting habits is by…focusing on one habit at a time, one month at a time…focus all your energy on that one habit.” He says changing simple basic habits are the “force multiplier” for long-lasting success.  Here’s his easy, 4-step approach:

  1. Select one habit to focus on this month. Pick whatever you think will have the biggest impact on your life right now.  Example: If stress is your number one issue, choose to exercise.
  2. Write down your plan — state your specific goal for each day.  Example: Exercise 30 minutes every morning at 6:30 a.m.
  3. Select a “trigger” that signals it is time to act. Example: Select “brushing your teeth” as an action that reminds you its time to start exercising.
  4. Post your goal publicly and tell as many people as possible.  Example: Tell all your family and friends or set up a chat group and keep them posted.  (Okay, this idea didn’t appeal to me.  Perhaps Leo would say I wasn’t that committed. For me, I wouldn’t want to bother most people with my daily exercise routine.  But I would select several of close friends to support me and motivate me to succeed — and not let me off the hook!  This helps overcome the lone cowboy mentality and help us get the support we need while we’re trying something new.)

Alternatives to Exercising: Before you get out of bed each morning, journal for 30 minutes.  Every day at noon, take a 30-minute break to unplug and relax.  As soon as dinner is over, take 30 minutes to create art.  As soon as you get home from work, care for your garden for 30 minutes.  Every night at 9:30, meditate for 30-minutes. The key is do it DAILY for a SET amount of time — and focus on fun rather than a chore. (If you hate gardening, then let the weeds grow and focus on something else!).

This routine might not sound like fun, or significant; but I’ll bet doing it everyday produces results!  Persistence isn’t pretty, but the results prove to you that once you set your mind to something you can do it. Once accomplished, you gain confidence in your commitment to yourself; you believe you can make progress on tougher challenges next month, next time.  Success breeds success.

Interestingly enough, this idea of focus matches management guru Peter Drucker’s thinking: “You can only have one number one priority.” “Plans are only good intentions unless they immediately degenerate into hard work.”

Okay, so having one priority sounds ridiculous, impossible. Drucker and Babauta aren’t suggesting that you don’t do other things — only that you seriously focus on just one activity.  Your endless list of projects and responsibilities won’t go away.  But you can take control over something, one thing.

But how do you decide what to do first?

Drucker explains, “It’s so easy to do what’s familiar, comfortable, or fun. It’s so difficult, sometimes, to tackle the highest priority. And sometimes it’s difficult to even know your top priorities. We get lost in options, opportunities, and choices.” “If you can’t establish clear career priorities by yourself, use friends and business acquaintances as a sounding board. They will want to help. Ask them to help you determine your first things and second things. Or seek an outside coach or advisor to help you focus. Because if you don’t know what your first things are, you simply can’t do them first.”

So what’s your focus this month — pick just one thing! Appeal to your emotions; pick one thing that will inspire you.  Pick something that you think will give you quick results. Don’t tackle the most difficult or complicated. Don’t do something too reckless. Don’t use this particular exercise to start searching for your dream job, finding your soul mate, or learning French, not yet.  Start with something fun, that you can do on your own, that will make you feel a bit happier.  No it won’t change everything, but it might just kick-start your enthusiasm — and your commitment to your own happiness.

After all this, I’m inspired to pick my monthly focus.

Now, what about you?  Don’t know where to start? We’ll talk about that next time.

What stimulates innovation more: caring or crisis?

Perhaps that is another proverbial chicken or egg question.  But it is important for us to think about.

As each day of the BP oil spill goes by without any real progress, I wonder how it affects the American psyche.  Is the crisis motivating action or fueling hopelessness? In a recent article, Philippe Cousteau, makes a strong statement: How U.S. responds to spill reflects the soul of this country.

In any tough situation, how we respond matters. Take the financial crisis.  It shook things up for all of us. And it’s continuing to shake things up for businesses, government agencies, and nonprofits.  How do we respond as the uncertainty continues, (Wells Fargo: The Moderate Recovery Continues, but Is It Sustainable?)

To find out how the financial crisis is affecting Health and Human Services Organizations, I attended a conference, United Front: Advancing the Common Good in the New Normal. Here’s what I learned:

  1. More people need more services — caused by the financial crisis.
  2. Significantly less funding is available — from government (state/federal) and foundations.
  3. State and federal budget deficits look bleak for a long time ($55 trillion US federal deficit).
  4. The worst of the recession may be over — but recovery won’t be easy.
  5. Jobs lost won’t be recovered until 2013 — 8.4 million jobs in the US.
  6. Wages fell — significantly — for the first time in 40 years.
  7. Aging boomers will choke the healthcare system with end-of-life expenses.

Gloomy indeed.  Will this stimulate action and innovation? According to economist, Dr. Tom Stinson, that’s precisely what we need to do.  We can’t keep doing the same things the way we’ve always done them — or get by trying to work harder with less.  We need to significantly improve productivity through what Stinson referred to as disruptive innovation.

The good news is that while most people don’t think of themselves as innovators, they do consider themselves to be problem solvers. So think of disruptive innovation as problem solving on steroids — or problem solving with passion.

Apparently disruptive innovation is just what’s needed to reform healthcare according to a Business Week article by disruptive innovation expert Clayton Christensen.  He recommends… “moving the simplest procedures now performed in expensive hospitals to outpatient clinics, retail clinics, and patients’ homes. Costs will drop as more of the tasks performed only by doctors shift to nurses and physicians’ assistants. Hoping that our hospitals and doctors will become cheap won’t make health care more affordable and accessible, but a move toward lower-cost venues and lower-cost caregivers will.”  Conference speaker, Mary Brainerd, President and CEO of Health Partners, is doing that, locating retail clinics in neighborhoods and sharing expensive technology.  Michael Porter, Harvard Business School professor, spoke last week at the World Innovation Foundation conference, where he recommended focusing on increasing healthy outcomes rather than just cost savings.  Others might argue that disruptive innovation in healthcare can only be achieved through improved nutrition, exercise, and alternative healthcare.

Whether you believe in any of these healthcare solutions doesn’t matter. What’s important is that we get more people involved solving problems they truly care about. We can’t leave innovation to just a few people at the top, in a special job, or task group.

How do we foster thoughtful innovation? There are no easy answers.  Taking risks is ever easy — with or without a crisis.  How can you get motivated if you’re worried about making a mistake, being criticized, or losing our job?  It’s hard enough when funding is tight and where new initiatives are rare.  It’s even harder if an innovative idea failed; institutional memory is long where failure is involved.  If you’ve never participated in anything you consider innovative, how do you know where to start? If we care about our work, we need to find ways to motivate ourselves.  We take risks everyday; we just don’t always see it that way.  As management guru Peter F. Druker points out: “People who don’t take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year.  People who do take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year.”

I suggest that to increase your comfort level and likelihood for success, talk to people who are doing it right now.   Seek out someone who’s willing to support you as you test the waters on your idea.  Find a mentor.  Find ways to gain insights and the confidence you need to be more innovative.

Look for innovative ideas that inspire you. While they might not have anything to do with what you’re doing right now, perhaps you’ll start to think differently.  I’m inspired by the enormity of innovative projects streaming my way everyday.  What appeals to me are practical examples, what people are accomplishing today even while the financial crisis continues. A lot is happening as the lines between business, nonprofits and government agencies are evolving.  The concepts of social enterprise, triple bottom line, and corporate social responsibility are forging new collaborations, new possibilities, and higher expectations.  Here’s a great example: A seemingly unlikely collaboration, Coke and Greenpeace partnered to reduce the beverage company’s biggest carbon footprint caused by 10 million vending machines.

Links to Innovators

Whatever you’re passionate about, I hope you won’t wait for a crisis to motivate you. Innovate because you care — be a proactive problem solver with a passion. And seek out the support you need to help you be more successful when you do.

Kick-start Innovation: Are you looking for a fun, easy way to get people thinking and exploring new ideas?  The Creative Whack Pack is something I’ve been using to help start the conversation for decades.

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