Perfectionism and Mentoring Don’t Mix

We're all diamonds in the rough.

We’re all diamonds in the rough.

Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it.  

—Salvador Dali

So true, yet how did our expectations get so out of whack?  What makes us think perfection is at all possible — in ourselves or in other people?

When you aim for perfection, you discover it’s a moving target.   

—George Fisher

You’ve seen the hidden trap of perfectionism in others.  They’ve got great ideas; yet they fail to move forward.  They’re waiting — for the perfect circumstances, the dream project, or the ideal job.  Ironically, all too often we fail to see it in ourselves as well. What are the reasons not to choose a mentor:

  • The Critic:  “I doubt if anyone would have the right experience to be a good mentor for me.  Besides, I’m working on something innovative; no one has done this before.”
  • The Procrastinator: “I’ve even talked to a few people about being my mentor.  But I’m not exactly sure what I really want to do.  I need to wait until I’m fully prepared.”
  • The Fire-fighter:  “I’m too busy already.  How could I possibly find the time.”
  • The Dreamer: “I’ve been thinking about my idea for years.  Some day I’ll start hammering out the details and find the perfect mentor.”
  • The Worrier:  “I’d like a mentor, but I’ve never had one.  I don’t know what to expect.  I don’t want to let them down.  What if it doesn’t work out?”

Are these really strong enough arguments to keep you from excelling?   Not really.

If whatever you want to do is truly important you, you will find the time.  You’ll stop dreaming and act.  You’ll acknowledge your fears and get started.  You’ll find a way. Smart people know the importance of surrounding themselves with other smart people. They seek out others who stretch them — so they can actually achieve more, be more.

But it requires vulnerability and honesty.  

Yes, it’s really tough to admit what you don’t know — especially if you think you should already know it!  And of course we feel more vulnerable tackling our emotional roadblocks: overcoming procrastination, managing our temper or timidity, accepting criticism, or being a control freak.  (Some days perhaps its not one but all of these!)  Even asking someone for support is difficult, particularly when we care very deeply about something.

Why take a risk?  Why be vulnerable?  Why ask for real, long-term support when you work in today’s hyper-critical business world — where excessively high expectations are the norm?  Because it’s your life, your dreams, and your potential that are at stake.  How else do you expect to get to where you want to go?   

Mentoring isn’t therapy, but vulnerability is essential.  Brené Brown explains the power of vulnerability well in her TED Talk.

To escape criticism — do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.  —Elbert Hubbard

So get out there. Give yourself permission to let go of perfectionism. Breathe in a giant sigh of relief!  It always feels energizing to me.  (I hate to admit it, but I need to do this mental exercise fairly often!)

Naturally there will always be roadblocks and plenty of surprises, both good and bad.   But imagine what you could achieve with a smart, caring mentor in your corner.  Start thinking about all of the new ideas, innovations, and connections you will make.  You don’t have to be perfect.  You don’t need a perfect plan to get started.  You just need to be open to learning — and to being fully committed to living up to your potential.

The imperfections of a man, his frailties, his faults, are just as important as his virtues.  You can’t separate them.  They’re wedded.   —Henry Miller

No, your mentor won’t be perfect either.  Start off right, assure them that you’re not expecting perfection from them!  You might be surprised just how much that will strengthen your mentoring relationship — and how much more you’ll learn.

So switch off your perfectionism.  Whether you’re a leader, change-agent, entrepreneur or social entrepreneur, surround yourself with smart people who care about you and where you want to go. Focus your actions on finding a mentor — or 2! Just in case one doesn’t turn out to be as perfect a match as you might want. Everyone’s human after all.

Aim for success, not perfection.  Never give up your right to be wrong, because then you will lose the ability to learn new things and move forward with your life. — Dr. David M. Burns

Engage Your Touch of Genius

Stay Focused

Stay Focused: Click on the photo, then focus. You’ll start to see the trees. 

You’re smart. You work hard. You’ve got a dream. You have a glimpse of an idea, a way to make a difference in the world. Maybe you don’t know where to start. Maybe you’re making real progress and you want to make more impact. Or maybe you’re overwhelmed and uncertain about the future.

Today ideas and technology change every minute! Check out this infographic about what happens on the internet every 60 seconds.

Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex… It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction. — Albert Einstein

So engage your touch of genius.

This January take a time-out instead of writing a long list of all your New Year’s resolutions. Take an hour (or an afternoon) to eliminate the distractions and seriously think about what you really care about.

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover. – Mark Twain

Decide to pick just 3 things for your Dream List. With only 3 things, you’ll be able to remember them and commit to them. Focus. Focus. Focus. (What if you can’t pick just 3, read What to Do With an Avalanche of Choices.)

I have to admit, I had a very hard time narrowing my Dream List to 3. Yet I felt a big sigh of relief after I did. I even surprised myself by eliminating something I thought I “should” do and replacing it with something that is more fun and positive. I’m confident eliminating a “should” will likely make it easier for me to achieve #1 and #2!

My natural inclination is to think about all the connections, possibilities, alternatives, and more. So something simply had to go! I revised my Dream List again and again, trying hard not to be vague. That’s the worst, because vague goals can’t be checked off the list. So unsatisfying. Yes, I need to exercise more, meditate more; but I know that if I’m making progress on what matters to me I’m more likely to accomplish other things that are good for me.

So dare to embrace all the uncertainty and get going. Yes, you need to be smart about it. Of course, there are no guarantees you’ll be successful. You’ll need to manage the risks. By narrowing your focus, you will increase your chances for success — something any management consultant worth their salt will tell you.

Let go of certainty. The opposite isn’t uncertainty. It’s openness, curiosity and a willingness to embrace paradox… The ultimate challenge is to accept ourselves exactly as we are, but never stop trying to learn and grow. ― Tony Schwartz

Keep your eye on the prize.

Excellence can be obtained if you care more than others think is wise, risk more than others think is safe, dream more than others think is practical, expect more than others think is possible. — Unknown
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If your Dream List includes finding a mentor with real-world experience to support you on your way, here are tips to choosing one who’s right for you.

Mentor Planet offers 1-to-1 mentoring relationships for 6-12 months for only $99/year.

January is National Mentoring Month. Considering being a Mentor Planet Mentor and help someone reach their potential.

For more information go to MentorPlanet.com.

What to Do With an Avalanche of Choices

We like having lots of choices.  Yet with each option, there is always the lurking possibility we’ll make the wrong choice.  And, we hate being wrong.

Which is the absolute right choice?

In her book, Being Wrong, author Kathryn Schultz points out that, “As a culture, we haven’t even mastered the basic skill of saying “I was wrong.” Instead, we justify our choices and actions with false apologies and rationalizations: “I was wrong, but” … or “mistakes were made.”  She explains that, we do it so that we can “distance ourselves from responsibility.” (Schultz references statements by Nixon and Reagan.)  Yet our choices continue to impact our lives.

What’s more, she says, “Our default attitude toward wrongness — our distaste for error and our appetite for being right — tends to be rough on relationships.”  (Here’s her intriguing Pop Tech video.)

Given our distaste for being wrong, what can we do to make better choices? 

What can we do to increase our success and happiness — at work, in our relationships, and maybe even improve the world a bit along the way?  

1.  Limit your choices.  Yes, it seems counter intuitive.  But Sheena Iyengar, author of The Art of Choosing, makes a good case. But it’s not easy to do in a world of seemingly endless choice where you’re faced with literally dozens of toothpaste options or hundreds of dating choices on Match.com. She says, “more choice leads to less satisfaction or happiness.”

Meaningless minutia” bogs us down so that every little difference matters way too much.  We end up constantly second-guessing our decision: “How do I know that there isn’t something better?”  Your enjoyment of this avalanche of choice, Ivengar contends, “will be diminished by your regret over what you had to give up and leaving you less satisfied than you would have been if you had had less choice.”

The perfect is the enemy of the good. — Voltaire

Fearing that you’ll make the wrong choice, your anxiety increases. “We exhaust ourselves in the search,” she warns us.  “Even the most unbiased source can’t promise that a new finding tomorrow won’t reverse recommendations. The more information we seek out, the more confused we become.”  In a study involving 401k investments, “more choice, had, in fact, lead to worse decisions.” Of course, there are times where we really need more choices and do our research, such as weighing job choices or considering surgery. (Check out Iyengar’s TED talk.)

In Acquired Tastes, author Peter Mayle takes you on a journey with the wealthy and their choice dilemma. He says, “I’m not at all sure that they enjoy themselves as much as we think they do.  And why?  Because, damn it, something is always not quite right.”  He explains, “expectations tend to increase in direct proportion to the amount of money being spent, and if you are spending a fortune, you expect perfection.  Alas, life being the badly organized shambles that it so often is…perfection is rare.  Details that we would consider trivial assume enormous significance: the breakfast egg is inedible because it is marginally under boiled…the list of maddening blots on the landscape just goes on and on.”

Regardless of our financial situation, this search for perfection infects most of us. Not only do we hope to find the perfect job, life partner, or doctor, we expect to find perfect all around us:  the perfect cell phone contract, romantic restaurant, or pair of shoes.

2.  Know who you are.  This sounds ridiculous at first.  It’s not the trivial choices that require you to know yourself; it’s the decisions without any easy answers.  Just think about the decisions you’ve had to make recently — about healthcare, a mortgage, a job change, or a relationship conflict.  All too often we don’t know what we want until a situation arises.  Ivengar says, “we don’t bother to mull over the tough questions until we’re caught between a rock and a hard place, and by that time, we’re in no shape to give the answers most beneficial to us.”  We’re so busy racing around that when the time comes to make a tough choice, we’re usually too overwhelmed, exhausted, and stressed. 

Often there isn’t an obvious right or wrong choice. So “it becomes exponentially more difficult” to choose.  Paradoxically, she says, asking for more options proves that we don’t really know what we want.

For important decisions, Ivengar recommends that we do some honest soul searching — and be open to thinking and acting differently.  But that takes time and reflection.  Most of us aren’t willing to do that.  Then we only have time to react, and fall back into our “I was wrong, but” excuse.  While keeping the status quo seems easier, it’s unlikely to improve our choices — or our happiness. Habits acquired over the years don’t change easily. It is hard work! If we are truly interested into thinking better and improving our decisions, it’s worth it.

3.  Get your automatic brain under control. Ivengar reminds us that, “even when you know what you ought to be doing, what you would prefer in the long run, you can find yourself distracted and dazed by options that set off the automatic system.”  So you over-indulge at the dessert counter, or worse, sabotage a relationship and end up paying the price for a bad decision for years.

Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis, refers to the automatic brain as “the elephant.”  It’s enormously helpful because it effortlessly, subconsciously, operates our bodily functions and more.  But for many key decisions, you need more — logic and reason — or what he calls “the monkey” brain.  Your logical brain is “completely absorbed in looking out for problems and opportunities.”

Unless you make an effort to control the elephant brain, your automatic thinking will kick in about 95% of the time according to Gerald Zaltman.  The elephant brain can get you into trouble — reacting instinctively to pleasure (over-indulgence) and danger (anger). Oscar Wilde said, “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.”   Imagine how much happier and successful you’d be if you could just engage your logic and reason a bit more often.

4. Learn to be an expert in the process of choosing. It sounds complicated, but it is easier than you might think. Ivengar recommends borrowing the knowledge of others because they can help you develop insights and expertise more rapidly than if you attempt it on your own.  Find a mentor to help you test your thinking.  That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t trust your judgment — but rather test your judgment where you know it needs improvement.

Ivengar says you need to “find reasons not to choose what you’re immediately drawn to. Have a heavy dose of skepticism about your own thinking.”  Work with your mentor to probe into how and why you make choices. Start by paying attention to your decisions (which is easier said than done!). Brainstorm about ways to reduce your reaction mode.

Having an outside expert doesn’t solve the problem of your having to choose, she warns. “Given how many ways one can go wrong when choosing, it’s tempting to pass off a choice I’m supposed to make as an opportunity for another person to express an opinion.  This way, I don’t have to take responsibility for the choice, and the person I ask often enjoys giving advice.  Your mentor can’t make decisions for you — or make perfect recommendations.  They can probe deeper, recommend alternatives, and share decision-making successes and failures.  Over time you “can learn to simplify, prioritize, and recognize patterns.”

Don’t start with your most complicated choices.  Instead, begin with something easier so you’re willing to take risks and it will be easier to see progress.  Simplify your decisions and decision process. Invengar and others recommend limiting your choices to 3 — or groups of 3s. (McKinsey consultants apparently use this with their clients.) In a New York Times article, Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, says, “When looking for a new camera, limit yourself to 3 Web sites.”  (That makes sense, unless you’re a photographer.) Or if you’re wrestling with something bigger, such as a career change, break down the decisions into groups of 3s.  Instead of thinking of all the possibilities at once, consider categorizing them into types of organizations:  nonprofits, government, or social enterprise.  Then repeat the process of creating job categories.

No one can make the right choice all the time.  But you can stop wasting time on meaningless minutia.  Instead, invest your thinking time in decisions where you feel that you’re making progress in your life.  Leverage them to your best interest — and best self.  Feel more in control and less on automatic pilot.  Get there faster with a supportive mentor who can accelerate your ability to learn and grow.

How I Took the Leap: My 9 Steps

Taking the Leap: It takes both optimism and thoughtful planning

by guest blogger Angela Bushman

I recently left an enviable, reasonably well-paying job at a Fortune 500 company in favor of a free-fall into the great, unknown landscape of opportunity.

The sort of role I (until recently) occupied offered splashy, exciting projects, travel and connections with people of mind-blowing talent. It was, as many have told me, “a dream job.” It just wasn’t my dream. And that dissonance made it stressful.

I am a blend of free-spirited idealist and responsible mother and homeowner. Yet my own experiential evidence supports what might otherwise qualify as irrational optimism. I have been hired during hiring freezes, in poor economies, in dire times, when pundits and public alike have preached doom and gloom. Others in my circle have made recent moves that have offered both higher pay and reduced stress. Even the LinkedIn newsfeed notified me that a rather significant percent of my connections had made a move in the past year. Thus, I am choosing to believe in great possibilities based on the tremendous value I offer, my network of supporters and luck.

Each day I face a kaleidoscopic range of emotions, from confidence and excitement to fear and doubt. Even my optimism has a pragmatic bent — I’d begun networking and found positive support among outside colleagues even before I leapt. I have a financial cushion, and there are folks I know I can call for freelance, contract, and project work. My resume, bio, and online profiles had been diligently updated.

I struggled in my recent job for some time. Even when I began, I knew my stay would be temporary. A position in an established department of a large company calls for a narrow set of skills.  I’m better at creating something from nothing, synthesizing disparate ideas or programs and establishing the structures and systems to support what I’ve built.

And yet my ego told me I wanted this recent job on my résumé, even if for only a short time. What I planned to be a two-year stint turned into nearly four years as project after project came at me, causing a hamster-on-a-wheel effect. I had no idea how to get off. Developments in my personal life made the relative stability of staying put a necessity. Now that I am a single mother of two, established in a new life routine, I’m re-prioritizing my own health and happiness.

Within days of having made the decision to take this leap, friends and colleagues began asking me what was different?  Was I in love? Had I lost weight? Did I do something different with my hair? I was immediately happier and more joyful — and those around me could easily tell. Stress no longer plagues me. I’ve begun sleeping restoratively through the night. And I actually crave healthier foods. Even if this leap of faith seemed crazy, I know I’ve made the right choice for me.

Are you ready for a major life or career transition? If so, give yourself the gift of planning:

  1. Prepare the tools you’ll need for next steps. Update your resume, LinkedIn profile, bio and other tools you might use in your search.  Or have your business plans drafted.
  2. Start networking. Ask colleagues for recommendations, connections and contacts. Go even further:  tell everyone you know what you’re looking for and what makes you great!
  3. Plan your finances. Save or negotiate a financial cushion.  Six months of expenses is often recommended.
  4. Craft a personal marketing plan. Identify your key strengths, competencies and types of roles and organizations you’ll target. Be sure to think about what skills or services you might be able to offer on a freelance or contract basis.
  5. Notice cues in your environment. When you stop hearing “Are you crazy?!” and begin hearing, “Good for you! Let me give you some names,” — you know change is afoot. Allow yourself to be fueled by the positive energy around you.
  6. Look for evidence. I’ve recently seen a number of colleagues not only find a better work-life balance but also achieve higher earnings. There’s a trend I can embrace!
  7. Consider your total compensation. Evaluate your salary and benefits and find ways to discover how you can leverage your strengths in growing industries.
  8. Build a support system. You may experience times of uncertainty or self-doubt. Have a plan for managing through these times. Find a mentor — or counselors, colleagues and friends who can affirm your value and skills.
  9. Adopt a sales mentality. Every “no” means you’re one step closer to “YES!” in theory, but here is a link for practical tips to help you in the process.

So what’s my plan?

  • I’m taking my time and re-focusing my career direction to better leverage my strengths and achieve greater work-life balance.
  • I’m viewing opportunities in the way I view dating:  I’m not a great fit for everyone, and not every one is for me. Still, I can always get excited about meeting new people and learning about new opportunities. I’m working on finding a match that’s rewarding for both of us.
  • I’m searching for an opportunity that values and rewards my strategy, program-building, communication and relationship skills.
  • I’m connecting fearlessly by reaching out to people in decision-making roles and expanding my network.
  • I’m exploring how to publish the children’s books I’ve written.
  • I’m researching the costs and potential market for two new products.
  • I’m writing business plans for two or three business ideas that I believe have potential.
  • I’m blogging.

I wish you the very best on your next leap of faith, and I hope you’ll return the favor.

Angela Bushman is a Minneapolis-based writer, marketing communications consultant and mother. Contact her at writetouch@gmail.com.  


Your Best New Years Resolution: Find a Mentor

Get the insight and support you need to move ahead.

National Mentoring Month just happens to coincide with our annual ritual of making New Years resolutions.  As we reflect on the frustrations or lost opportunities, and all that we dream about, it is the ideal time to take stock in what we really want to happen — this year!

All too often, we do nothing more than make a good list and attempt a few weeks of effort.  Then, little changes.

Life is about moving; it’s about change.  And when things stop doing that, they’re dead.  — Twyla Tharp


This year, try something new: Find a Mentor! Research shows that going it alone isn’t the quickest or best path to success. So regardless of what you do in 2011, a mentor can help you get there. They can help you be more effective, encourage you during setbacks, ask thoughtful questions, help avoid problems, offer real world solutions or realistic alternatives you might never have even considered.

Finding a good mentor is like finding a good job.  If you know what you want, and set clear goals, you’re more likely to find what you’re looking for — and make changes that are important to you.

3 STEPS TO HELP YOU GET WHAT YOU WANT

1. Set Goals — What’s On Your List of New Year’s Resolutions?

Mentors can benefit you in so many ways that it’s important to think through what you want.  Make sure you look for a mentor that has the skills, experience, or insights that are right for you.

What do you want your future to look like? What do you dream about? What do you want to achieve? Do you dare to radically raise the bar? What would you like to change or improve? Are you unhappy at work? Career passion shouldn’t be an oxymoron. If you’re not sure what you want, a mentor can help you figure it out too.  Crystallize your goals to narrow your search:

  • I’m frustrated in my current job. I need help figuring out if I should stay or if I should make a change.
  • I want my own business. I have an idea but I’m not sure how to get started.
  • I’m really unhappy at work, burned out. I could use help figuring out how to juggle my job, my family, and having a life.
  • I run a nonprofit, but I’m having trouble managing my board.
  • I think I’m ready for a promotion, but my boss doesn’t think so.  What can I do?
  • I’ve been looking for a job for nearly 2 years.  I need someone to help regain my confidence.
  • I’ve always thought about working for a nonprofit. I’d like to talk to someone who switched from corporate life.
  • I’m doing okay as an artist, but I need someone to help me get to the next level.
  • I’m great at marketing, but I need more management experience.
  • I like my job right now, but I want to explore my options.

2. Select Criteria — What type of mentor do you want?

What makes a good match?  Think about a teacher or boss who made it easy for you to learn, and helped and encouraged you to achieve more than you thought you could. What type of person was it that helped you open doors, see strengths you didn’t know you had, or kept you focused and on track? What were the key things they did that led to your success?  Identify your top 3-5 must-haves. Narrow down your criteria so you don’t waste time interviewing mentors who aren’t a good fit.

Consider what’s really important: chemistry, communication, conflict of interest, experience, pet peeves, similarities, time commitment, trust, and values.

Example: Business Start Up I’m seeking a business owner who successfully operates an organic restaurant.  I would like one, like me, who is enthusiastic and positive, though a bit more down-to-earth.  I will probably need to meet every two weeks for a few months until I get my business plan figured out, and then monthly for the first year.

Example: Accelerating the Career Ladder I want a mentor with 10+ years of marketing experience in the health and wellness area who has been very successful in her career.  I prefer a woman — someone like me who is working long hours in a demanding job and yet still manages to have a great family life and take time for herself. I need to make sure it isn’t someone who works for one of our competitors, and I would like it to be someone who isn’t in the healthcare industry.

Example: Burned Out, Exploring Options I am hoping to find a practical person who has opted out of the fast track and simplified their life. Ideally, it would be someone who has retired early and switched careers to something they really enjoy. I certainly don’t need someone lecturing me — a know-it-all. I’d like to meet every week at first, until I’m on my way. Then monthly. Probably 6 months would do it.

3. Evaluate your options

You’ll be investing a lot of yourself.  Your mentor will be, too  — volunteering their time, insights, and experience. So  it’s essential that you carefully evaluate your options.  And be open.  Don’t be surprised if you end up refining your goals or selection criteria as you gain more insight into what you really want. Remember: the best relationships are give-and-take. Choose 2-3 candidates to initially talk with, and then select the one who will support you — make real progress toward your goals.

Find a mentor and you just might achieve those New Year resolutions!

Inspired By a Human Hurricane

Cornel West, photo thanks to Axel Boldt, wikipedia

In Venezuela that’s precisely how Cornel West was introduced — as a human hurricane. West admits that he “likes moving in 5 different directions at the same time.”

At 14 he was already operating at full speed:  West ran the 2-mile in 10:12, one of the fastest ever for his age.  “(I was) burning up the track and burning the midnight oil, reading books like they were going out of style….holding down that first chair violin for the orchestra…(and) reading philosophy like other kids read comic books — not to impress anyone, but to feed my soul.”

Who is Dr. West? When he was a professor at Yale, there was a time when he commuted between Yale, New Haven, Connecticut, and across the Atlantic to the University of Paris.  He was also a Professor of African-American Studies at Harvard University, with a joint appointment at the Harvard Divinity School teaching African-American studies, Divinity, Religion, and Philosophy. Today he’s a professor at Princeton University, graduating magna cum laude from Harvard University with a Ph.D. from Princeton — and author of many books.

Some might consider him to be a man of reckless conviction — others praise his courage, leadership, and strong beliefs. According to Maya Angelou, “Cornel West thinks like a sage, acts like a warrior and writes like a poetical prophet.”  The New York Times praised his “ferocious moral vision.”  He sees himself as “a bluesman in the life of the mind.

When he was a student at Harvard, West said,  “I was willing to die to emerge a more courageous, living, and decent human being.”  By death, West meant having the courage to question — and be continually transformed.  He believes that examination and rejuvenation go hand in hand — “critique and praise are inseparable.”  Outspoken may be an understatement when it comes to West:

  • He criticized the Black Panthers for criticizing Christianity.
  • He risked his life when he stood up against a minister from the Nation of Islam’s for disrespecting Malcolm X.
  • He was the first Yale professor to be arrested on Yale property — participating in the university’s clerical workers strike.
  • He co-authored, Jews & Blacks: Let the Healing Begin, only to later challenge his co-author for not walking his talk.
  • He voiced his outrage directly to President Clinton about the welfare reform bill (yet spoke at Clinton’s 2nd term inauguration).
  • He stood up to Harvard President Larry Summers who had accused West of being unprofessional.

A man of tremendous achievement, West continues to raise the bar — in his own life and for the world. Featured in the film, The Examined Life, Dr. West exudes brains, intensity, and a passion for life — a self proclaimed “prisoner of hope, a fanatic of fairness, and an extremist of love.” Yet he’s acutely aware of life’s dualities, “We all got the blues.  We all wanna lose our blues.  We all gotta look for ways to do that.”

I’ve been reading his memoir, Living and Loving Out loud, a roller coaster life.  It’s full of passionate debate, relentless inquiry, overcoming injustice, strong family bonds and the broken ones too. 

Insights From the Life of Hurricane West:

1. Embrace Conflict — With Empathy and Hope

During an emotionally charged event at Harvard, West risked his life by standing up for respectful dialogue when a preacher from by the Nation of Islam referred to Malcolm X as a dog.  The minister said to West, “you’ll be lucky to get out of this building alive.”  After going into hiding for a few days, he reached out to someone in the Nation’s community — eventually finding shared values and empathizing with one another. “Empathy overwhelmed anger,” West explains,  “Empathy is not simply a matter of trying to imagine what others are going through, but having the will to muster enough courage to do something about it. In a way, empathy is predicated upon hope.”

What if we took action like that? It’s easy to discount West’s actions as youthful machismo.  Risking my life like that isn’t something I would do, but sometimes we really need people who will!  West inspires me to have more courage. I need to speak up and speak out earlier.  I know there have been too many times in my past when I didn’t; thinking that avoiding conflict was the better route. He also reminds me to make sure I am actually listening and learning — rather than focusing on changing other people’s minds. West saw how intelligent protest can cause real change, but it requires “the courage to exercise constant humility in the pursuit of a noble cause greater than oneself.”

2. Depth of Support Is Essential

Ever since he was a young kid, West was a challenger and defender; he “bullied the bullies,” which was constantly getting him in trouble.  Through it all he had “the voice of calmness and unquestioning integrity” from his parents — and unflappable support of his older brother and two sisters. When West was falsely accused of rape (he and his 2 roommates were all arrested for the same crime while attending Harvard), his brother Cliff said, “I’ll get on a plane right now; I’ll be there in the morning.”  (Fortunately the next day, all charges were dropped.)

He also has a strong Christian faith, having had a spiritual mentor at an early age.  At Harvard, he had a mentor too — the first black professor to gain tenure there (Martin Kilson).  West continued to build relationships with exceptional colleagues and collaborators throughout his life.

That deep level of support is difficult to replicate, but we all can actively seek out mentors, colleagues, friends, and professional groups. Sure brains matter. Hard work matters. But when you need to muster the courage to survive the really tough times, nothing comes close to value of authentic emotional support.

3. Connect Your Voice to Your Vocation

How many of us knew precisely what we wanted from life? West knew himself; I had “to forge a unique style and voice that expresses my own quest for truth and love.” West encourages us to first find our voice and put forth a vision for it — and connect that to our vocation.  Of course that’s easier said than done.

Early on, West was fortunate to find his calling: “connecting the life of the mind to the struggle for freedom.”  It doesn’t guarantee life will be any easier, just more meaningful.  West says, “It is clear that there are profound joys and unbearable sorrows that accompany being true to one’s calling.  The comfort is in the knowing that by giving one’s heart and soul to uplift others through one’s art, one’s vocation, voice and vision are fulfilled.”   I’d say there are sorrows and joys in every life, but it all seems more worthwhile if you’re doing something that matters to you.

4. Forget Perfection — Enjoy Life

With all his achievements, it would be easy to discount the challenges.  I’m not talking about the external ones, but the internal ones.  West openly admits to his humanness, which I find refreshing since we’re bombarded daily by superlatives and life’s realities lie hidden.

He says, “I must unapologetically reveal my broken life as a thing of beauty.” Despite all his success, West continually found himself coping with a bad case of the “IRS blues,” creating a “monetary mess” for himself.  He didn’t bother with doctors, until someone suggested he have his prostate checked; he had aggressive, last-stage prostate cancer — and beat it.  After his marriage to an Ethiopian Orthodox woman, they had to sleep with guns under their pillows and had militia guarding their house.  When they divorced, he said he had nothing “except his ’88 Cadillac.”

Quite the life. Yet he seems to be a man that remains passionate — clearly hungry for more. He loves music (from Marvin Gaye to Beethoven), romantic poetry, his 1988 Cadillac Sedan Deville — and women (you’ll have to read the book).

He writes to his children “the most essential lesson I can offer from my twentieth-century life for your twenty-first-century lives is to find and sustain joy every day that you breathe by touching the lives of others and inspiring people through your example to reach higher and serve better.”

Just like the rest of us, West isn’t superhuman — perhaps more authentic than most.  Whether you value his views or not, you know where he stands.  While many know him more for his civil rights and social justice efforts, I value his willingness to fully embrace life.

So enjoy what life has to offer.  Don’t get bogged down by cynicism; keep going.  Forget the imperfections in your life, and focus on loving the people that stick by you. Chase what excites you and stand up for it — with empathy and hope.

Going It Alone? Think Twice.

Guest Blog by John Schuerman

Want happiness or expert-level success or both?  The research shows that going it alone is not likely to get you there.

The American psyche is profoundly informed by mythologies of individual heroism — which unfortunately do not map to reality.

There is a great conflict between the mythical hero of Hollywood that rises against all odds and the real road to success. Our individual heroes simply don’t get to be heroic or expert without the guidance and support of caring teachers. The Harvard Business Review featured an article, The Making of an Expert, which reported that in almost every case the practicing of the expert was supervised by a personal teacher/mentor. Expert level success required personal guidance from a caring and qualified teacher.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, is a research-based and systematic dismantling of the notion that heroes rise simply on their own ingenuity. “People don’t rise from nothing… The people that stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allowed them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.”

And this conflict of myth and reality has a darker side still.

Above all, we are taught to be our own person. Our consumer culture, fueled by marketing, creates choices and hunger for evermore choice and personal control. The myth of the free market is that the individual is the center of the universe. According to Martin Seligman, renowned research psychologist at the Positive Psychology Center in Pennsylvania, “The society we live in exalts the self.” He links this “waxing of the self and the waning of the commons (higher purpose)” with the dramatic rise in depression over the last 60 years.

If we are suffering from our own self-absorbedness what is the antidote? Meaningful attachments to other individuals and to purposes larger than self seem like plausible answers. The research on happiness and life expectancy find that, above all, friends and family relationships matter (and “cholesterol doesn’t,” from the famous Harvard Study of Adult Development longitudinal study, begun in 1937).

Partners, by John Shuerman

Work, and in particular progress in work, also positively affect our experience of “a good life.” When it comes to progress in work, both the HBR study and the Malcolm Gladwell book state absolutely that there is no substitute for hard work. Without long hours — you simply won’t get there, but for true expertise, long hours won’t be enough. A caring teacher is essential to have in the equation.

My colleague Beth Parkhill, Founder of Mentor Planet, says that a mentor is a smart friend. It now strikes me how sharp that definition is, answering both the relationship and learning aspects of “a good life.”

If you are like me and have “gone it alone” more than was best, perhaps there is still time to think twice.

John Schuerman, artist and consultant