Wednesday, December 8, 2010

My happiness: Shall I decide or shall you?

At the recommendation of a colleague, I read the getAbstract summary for the book Stumbling on Happiness (Vintage, 2007) by Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert, whose research centers on predicting one's future emotional state. The book is about why people make cognitive errors in predicting what will make them happy: Our brains, overloaded with memories, take faulty short cuts in which they intersperse a smattering of facts with greater quantities imagination and erroneous perception, resulting in a poor estimation of the future state. The summary states:

Based on extensive psychological research, his book posits that, regarding life's future milestones, most people would do better asking someone else what to do rather than making their own decisions.

Note that I have not read the whole book, so there likely is more to it than the summary relates. However, for me, it boils down to the well-known adage, perception is my own reality, and that perception-reality includes lots of my own imagination.

I don't disagree with the main point made by the author: that imagination (I need to add the qualifier, "alone") is a bad happiness-planning tool. His reasoning:

1. Realism – We think we see reality, but we don't. The abstract states:

Because memories and perceptions are in part fabrications, they are often unreliable guides to future feelings. Yet, people uncritically accept the images their brains provide as true, even when their brains make up or leave out important details.

2. Presentism – How we feel in the present distorts our assessment of future state. The abstract states:

The brain operates on a policy of 'reality first'…if you're imagining a future event and your emotional response to it, your current positive or negative perceptions of the real world will take precedence over what your mind's eye creates. This may distort your feelings about future events.

3. Rationalization – We invent explanations that make us happy even if they are not rooted in fact. The abstract states:

The brain inherently leans toward positive, clear, rational interpretations of events – past, present and future. It provides "psychological immune systems" that keep people's spirits buoyant. Thus, even if an experience is negative…the brain will try to provide a positive perception of it…

Sure, I can buy that. Be aware of the part imagination unconsciously plays in our assessments and estimates. Check.

But where I get stuck is in the assertion: "...most people would do better asking someone else what to do rather than making their own decisions." Hmm…

Okay, I'm a scientist and I love good data and analysis as much as any geek. But abandoning my own personal data and analysis – especially as it relates to constructing a plan about me and my future – in favor of the data and analyses of others having similar experiences? That seems like a fundamentally flawed solution by the author's own arguments (not to mention a convenient way to abandon personal responsibility, which always rankles me). Doesn't it follow that an assessment of an experience by someone who has already gone through it is tainted by the same problems of realism, presentism, and rationalization as they relate their experiences to others?

I'll also concede that in controlled conditions a majority of people can have predictable responses to certain stimuli, but I do not fully support the assertion noted in the summary that "most human beings are alike" – at least, not without a whole lot of qualifiers. People have unique ways of drawing together their individual experiences and (faulty) thinking to construct a response. Maybe that response isn't "reality" in an absolute way, but my response is my reality, even if it is based largely on personal perception. And my perception is intensely related to my personal happiness. Vive la diffĂ©rence!

If you could just assess absolute data and assign cause-effect relationships, understanding human behavior would be so simple that Professor Gilbert would have to find something else to do. (Just kidding.)

I think a better approach to understanding happiness is, in addition to seeking input from the experienced (which is not a bad tip, just an incomplete solution), trying to sort out components of reality vs. imagination as best as possible in our own thinking and then analyze for complexity. Being aware of realism, presentism, and rationalization sure could help in sorting all of that out. (I suspect that, if I read the whole book, I would have excerpts to show that this is what Professor Gilbert is getting at.)

Happiness, I think, is a balance sheet. The return on your investment needs to come out on the positive end. The profits need to outweigh the liabilities. The trouble is that the things that make us happy all have strings attached, making the accurate construction of that balance sheet pretty complicated. It takes some work.

In my experience, if there is a way in which "most human beings are alike," it's that a lot of who we are is seemingly hard-wired, coloring our natural responses to the world. If we seek additional quality input (e.g., asking about the experiences of others), we may be able to modify our responses somewhat:

  • If you are the sort of person who seeks happiness (i.e., relies on that "psychological immune system") and balances it with consideration of the data, you will find a measure of happiness, even if it is not perfect.
  • If you are more radical and disregard the data in favor of blind optimism, your delusion may crumble and you may crash when it doesn't measure up to your perfect imaginings.
  • If your inclination is to see the glass half empty (and I don't mean that in a snide way – some people are just like that) and you balance it with data, you may find avenues leading to some measure of happiness you hadn't considered.
  • If you disregard the data, you may only see a miserable, flawed world in that half empty glass.

It's all about balance.

What do you think?

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Monday, August 30, 2010

Are you real, Mona Lisa?

It lives. It breathes. I know the intensity of these words.

A troupe of 300 Japanese tourists, all taking individual photos of themselves in front of the glass enclosure, finally left for the next gallery, offering only a moment to fight my way to the rail.

I’d seen photographs, of course; we all have. But, now, the photographs seem to represent some other work. This is no eyebrow-deficient, small-mouthed, jaundiced lady on a muddy canvas who dolefully reminds me of Morticia Adams’ homely sister. This is a gorgeous, vibrant, three-dimensional, human creature, searching my eyes across time and space, whispering her secret joys in my heart. I could not breathe within her gaze. My God.

This is the indescribable power of portraiture, of capturing faces to exude the subject’s core at that moment, grasping recognition in my own. It is a soul released of vulnerability, speaking deepest truths it could not utter in life.

I still tremble when I think back to that moment in the Louvre.

I commissioned an artist I admire to paint a portrait of my recently deceased mother, at my father’s request. He sent emails with attached jpegs, I sent back guidance on how to make the smile more like Mom’s or to better describe the shape of her chin. When I saw the photo of the best version, I was pleased. Today I saw the painting. My God.

The artist said, “In the photo you gave me, I saw a young, happy, woman, typical of her era, seeing her future of possibilities.”

That is exactly what he painted, but both his words and mine fail to describe her truth. Only oil and canvas can.

I cannot breathe within her gaze. I cannot stop looking.

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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Rubber band

Have you felt strrrrrretched to the breaking point, lately? I have. And just when I think I can go no further, I find a little more elasticity.

I was losing my mind thinking about the 7,432 things I need to accomplish by Friday. After a couple of hours pounding away furiously on my laptop in the waiting room at the hospital (long story), oblivious to everyone around me, I hadn't put even a small dent in those 7,432 things. In fact, the list had grown. And a couple of huge complications had arisen.

Frustrated, I unplugged my laptop and popped my cell phone into my pocket so that I could visit the restroom. Of course, it was closed for cleaning, so I had to go searching for another. Another woman was also on the potty hunt, so we headed off to find it together. 

She was wearing a baseball cap and had no eyebrows or eyelashes. Although the visible evidence suggested the answer, I asked her what she clearly wanted to be asked. She is fighting breast cancer.

She had driven more than an hour for her final chemo session. She continued to grapple with “Why me?” questions because she has always been very health conscious. She was feeling besieged by unsupportive co-workers who were speculating about what she’d done wrong to bring this curse upon herself. She was deflecting people who had various (ridiculous) suggestions on how to beat cancer. She was there all alone, facing her disease.

She told me about some uplifting audio programs that helped her emotionally. She showed me a new age tool for improving circulation and talked about her chakras and energies. When I complimented her beautiful complexion, she described a concoction she invented to heal her chemo-ravaged skin. She relayed concerns about her medical bills. She told me how she had to cut back to make ends meet, including cutting off her internet and cell phone – lifelines of connection when people can’t physically socialize. She told me about her exercise program. She told me of the joy of having a pedicure.

She smiled, she teared up.

She had a whole bag of tools with her that she used to help herself through this ordeal. She wanted someone to see them.

She wanted to help.

She wanted to be heard.

So, I looked. I listened. I commiserated. I encouraged. I affirmed. I congratulated. I complimented. I noted her advice. I tried to link her up with people and services that might help her to share her self-help discoveries with other cancer patients who might find comfort in them. I probably said a few wrong things, too.

I hope that when she drove home alone, feeling like hell, trying not to nod off or lose her stomach, leaving a few more hairs inside her baseball cap, heading closer to the people and bills that complicate her plight, she knew that someone heard her today and thinks that what she has to offer is important.

And, while I tried to be truly present for this stranger, I forgot the 7,432 things on my to-do list and focused on one unexpected thing that probably had more value than all the others combined. What a relief!

Stretch a little more. Be present for someone today. Maybe that extra stretch will keep both of you from breaking.

Thank you, lady in the baseball cap.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

I Have Not the Courage

I recently visited the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina. Although a range of African-American experience and worldwide social injustice is covered, emphasis is on the African-American Civil Rights Movement, 1955-1968.

I was born at the end of this movement, so I have no firsthand memory of it. Textbooks I used in the 1970s and 1980s didn't include many events past World War II. (Encyclopedias I used as a child stated, "Someday man might explore space.") My upbringing in a white area in the North didn't provide exposure to racial tension; it existed in town, but didn't enter the few square blocks of my life. I knew only of a few events, like Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on a bus, the Little Rock Nine pioneering school integration, and Martin Luther King saying "I have a dream."

So, when our exceptionally fabulous tour guide queued up displays with, "Of course, we're all familiar with the story…", I, shamefully, wasn't familiar. For example:
In 1955, 14-year-old, black, Chicagoan, Emmett Till, was brutally murdered while visiting family in Mississippi. Dared by his cousins, he wolf-whistled at a white woman. As a result, he was kidnapped, beaten, blinded, and shot in the head. His body was thrown into a river with a 74-pound cotton gin fan tied to his neck with barbed wire. His mutilated body could only be identified by a ring he wore. The two white suspects were acquitted by a jury of white men after only 67 minutes of deliberation. Afterward, the defendants gave an interview in which they admitted their crime. They never expressed remorse
As a mother, I'm shaky as I recall the photos—indescribable anguish on the face of Till's mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, viewing an unrecognizable lump that was once the face of her son. She insisted on an open-casket funeral, saying, "I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby."

The International Civil Rights Center and Museum is the original site of the Greensboro Four sit-in (a story I vaguely recall hearing before). On February 1, 1960, four African-American North Carolina A&T University students sat at the all-white lunch counter of F.W. Woolworth in Greensboro, triggering nonviolent sit-ins throughout the U.S. Joined daily by other students, they continued until the drugstore chain served all "properly dressed and well behaved people," regardless of race several months later.

It's unfathomable that such extreme and unpunished injustice and brutality could have been so common in my country (almost) within my lifetime.

The Greensboro Four were phenomenally courageous, given the extreme retribution exacted from a child who merely whistled 5 years earlier. How did they ever muster the courage to defy their oppressors? How did parents of college and high school students sitting in protest at that counter, amid jeers and threats, endure their fear for their children's safety, while remembering the heart-rending story of Mamie Till-Mobley's loss?

It is powerful to see the lunch counter standing on the same tile in the same room where a revolution began. It is sobering to admit I would not have the courage—courage like that of the Greensboro Four and so many others who risked their lives for equality—to cross those tiles to sit at that counter myself.

I stand in awe.

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Saturday, July 31, 2010

It's a Man's World. (How Are They Doing?)

(More from my digital compost heap.)

Father O'Malley: On the outside, it's a man's world.
Sister Benedict: How are they doing?
Father O'Malley: (Sheepishly) Not too good.
-The Bells of St. Mary's (1945)

One of my favorite snips of movie dialog. Ever. Pity it's still true 65 years later.

A social media disagreement caught my attention a couple of months ago when social media guru Chris Brogan tweeted something (or maybe it was in his blog feed?) along the lines of sometimes wishing he didn’t allow comments on his blog. Of course, that drove me straight to his blog to read his post, “Women in the Workplace,” and the reader comment of interest from Rieva Lesonsky, noted business consultant, author, and editor. (I read the other comments, too. Lots of evidence of privilege – good intentions but lack of understanding due to insider status.)

Chris Brogan stated in a comment (which seems to have disappeared now) on Rieva Lesonsky’s blog that the main points of his post were:
  1. Not all women WANT to lead, at least the way leadership is set up now. 
  2. Maybe women are leading “from different chairs” inside and outside of organizations.
To #2, I say, "No kidding." Women have always led behind the scenes in business, making significant contributions.

The problem is that women do not receive the same recognition and tangible rewards for their leadership as men do.  In fact, many men (and, to be fair, some women) have built their careers on the backs of highly talented females leading from different (less prestigious, less compensated) chairs. I doubt that many men, however, make similar complaints about having to manage upward while their female bosses keep rocketing up the corporate ladder.

To #1, I say, “Not untrue, but let's not use it to avoid the issue.”

Of course not all women want to lead, nor do all men. The difference is that women who want to lead and are talented enough to do so successfully are not given the same chances in terms of development into the role, decision-making authority, and commensurate compensation, as men. Lots of men. Often, untalented men. Men who may not even want to lead but took the money and title anyway.  

Despite the problems in leadership perception and expectations corporate America, do you really think that women with leadership talent and a desire to lead would turn down high pay and a prestigious titles if they were offered?  Heck, no! No more than the men do, anyway. They want to lead!

Would women change the frame of leadership if they could? Probably. But they are not in a position to do so. They have to get into the executive suite before they can make impactful changes to what defines corporate leaders, but there are nowhere enough of them in corporate leadership to be heard over the din of the old boys club.

And, sorry to burst the self-determination bubble, but Mary Middle Manager is not going to be able to revolutionize leadership at XYZ organization from a grass roots level. And, frankly, to expect her to do so is ridiculous. Oh, sure, if you don’t like something , change it – we’ve heard the rhetoric. But the reality is that business is NOT a democracy, nor is it primed for revolution. It is primed for self preservation. Most people go to work to earn a living, not change the world. Mary may be brilliant, but unless she is in the executive suite she has no real influence, no one really cares about her plight, and peers won’t rally around her to propel the coup. Worse, if she sticks her neck out too far, she just may anger the overlords. And Mary probably needs that job. After all, she’s still generally making 80-85% of what her male peers are making, no matter how you slice it.

Why will Mary leave to start her own business, retire in place, or off-ramp? It’s not that she doesn’t want to lead in the current leadership environment – she does! But by the time she effects the organizational changes that will open the top jobs to her – before she’s given the chance to lead – she’ll  be long retired.  Who wants to fall on the sword for a glacially moving cause?

Reminds me of this poster. I don’t want to end up with my picture on a demotivational poster with the caption, “Midas Touche’:  Did she seriously think she’d ever convince the golden boys to share their gold?”

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Just to round out the story, here is the comment I left on Chris Brogan’s blog:

I understand Chris’ issues with this response. But, as a mid-career professional woman, I understand where Rieva is coming from, too. I have been exploring gender bias through involvement with diversity initiatives at my company. (I love my company.) Frankly, I was shocked to discover how much rationalizing I’ve done about the bias I have seen, experienced, and even (unwittingly) enabled in my career. Clearly, Rieva was quicker than I in recognizing the realities of gender bias and is passionate about it. We need to be outraged, because it *is* outrageous that gender bias can still be an issue in corporate America in 2010. In her response, Rieva raises some very important points:

1. Sexism is still alive and well.
It’s not necessarily covert, which implies intent. I think it is more of a failure to recognize white male privilege and the resulting subconscious sexism. Most of the decision-makers I know, men and women, have good intentions and have championed improvements. But, there is so far to go.

It took me years to admit that the primary determinants of my career progress were not merely hard work and talent. I received many kudos and rewards (and much more work), but not the particular career-propelling opportunities that fast tracked my male peers for highly-compensated, direction-setting jobs. I duped myself into thinking that I was taking the right steps to control my own career destiny. I control it now, but had to reconstruct my approach on the ashes of long-held beliefs.

I have long led from another chair. The question is, “Why should I have to?”
2. Perhaps we’re avoiding the priority problem by diverting attention to fruitless analysis of wants
Clearly, asking someone what they want is better than shoving what you think they want at them. However, such rhetoric can be an avoidance technique. If I make the issue about undefined personal wants, then, as a decision maker, I can offer mentoring and my job is done. If I recognize it as a systemic problem of unequal opportunities, suddenly it is a big, complex problem that rattles my own security, requires major changes, and becomes imperative for me to address. Ick.
3. There’s still a huge wage gap
Chris cites statistics that say the gap is narrowing. No matter the size, should a gap exist at all in 2010? While women are paid less than men, they continue to have more stress and less opportunity. Stress and costs rise when a business trip means you have to scramble to find a live-in caregiver at a cost you can’t afford…or pay daycare an extra $100 to attend an emergency meeting scheduled on a day you don’t usually work…or are expected to work—and pay a sitter—on your unpaid FMLA because a crisis arose at the office…or part-time simply means you must do the full job in fewer hours at reduced pay.
4. We do not provide equal opportunity
We need to stop clinging to work structures defined back in a Donna Reed world. Neither women nor men who don’t fit the archaic stereotype can fully engage in their careers in this model—and we are losing out on their talents. With the many options available to us now for rethinking work-life, work locations, job responsibilities, etc., why can’t we move it along on this issue? A woman (or man) shouldn’t have to found a new company to align values with opportunities.
Thanks to both Chris and Rieva—and all the other commenters—for thought-provoking discussion.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Spectacular Lemonade Stand

Kitty Foyle: There's a lot of living to do in this world. And if you're worthwhile, you get hurt.
Kitty Foyle (RKO, 1940)

It must have been one of those days on which all 3 lines of my biorhythm intersected.

It was epic.

My siblings, father, and I were gathered at my mother’s bedside, waiting to saying goodbye to a woman who had rarely ever had a cold and epitomized true grit better than John Wayne.

Then, my husband suddenly became ill, necessitating an immediate trip to the nearest major medical center. I zoomed home, arranging care for our 3 small children on the way, picked up my husband, and sped him across town to the hospital.

I stayed until he was admitted, what seemed like 97 tubes of blood were drawn, and the doctor examined him. When his doctor assured me that all was under control and it was safe to leave him in the hospital’s care, I rushed back across town to the hospice center.

Mom died.

Oh, and our children’s regular caregiver had emergency surgery.

All on the same day.

Leading up to this day, I’d worked a 70-hour week, and had been putting in long hours and hard effort in the weeks prior. It was one of those unfortunate times when, despite other stressors, it was quite clear that it would be unwise to anger the overlords.

No, this is not the start of a novel. It sounds too ridiculous to be convincing, anyway. But it’s true.

I’d like to say that this was a crazy anomaly, an unlucky coincidence. But this sort of thing has been going on for a while.

About 7 years, in fact.

Did I break a mirror? Could this have been the grand finale of a looking-glass curse?

I sure hope so.

I guess I was due for a series of unfortunate events, though. Until about 7 years ago, I led a charmed life. Seriously. It’s not that nothing bad ever happened. It did. But everything always worked out okay in the end and never really seemed all that bad in retrospect. All the little glitches were trivial compared to the tremendous number of things that went really, really well through my entire life.

I’ve been blessed with brains, common sense, and a functioning family. My parents emphasized good values, education, and work ethic. It was no life of abundance, but we always had what we needed and, maybe, a bit more. I got a great job, married a loving man, and, despite the usual road bumps and disappointments of marriage and career, had incredibly fun times, playing in a rock band, travelling, spending summer weekends on the beach with a gaggle of good friends in a trailer we shared with another couple, enjoying good food and drink with our posse of gourmets/gourmands, and generally having a blast. Then we settled down and had the 3 most fabulous kids in the world. Life was good.

Then all the stink pellets started hailing down on us. Hard. Really, really hard. And mercilessly. Really, really mercilessly.

(A friend dubbed it The Vortex of Suck. Look for the #VortexOfSuck hashtag on Twitter.)

And life is still good. Really good.

Okay, I’m not stupid. It would be considerably better without the stink pellets. But, as long as there is tremendous, lemony suckage that can’t be avoided, I guess I’ll do the best I can to make lemonade.

I should know how. I started early in the lemonade biz.

When I was a child, I never had money to go to the movies or buy the hottest Lip Smackers flavor like my friends from families that had fewer children and larger disposable incomes, so I became an entrepreneur (along with my best friend, Lesli): We had spectacular lemonade stands to which kids from the neighborhood flocked—not only did we make and sell elaborately styled lemonade treats, but also ran carnival-style games and other fun activities from our little sideways-toppled toy box that became the counter of the lemonade stand. I earned enough cash to support my juvenile whims, albeit with the sacrifice of a few lesser loved toys as game prizes. Lesson learned: topple the box, suck it up, and redefine the situation; you may wind up getting what you want.

My life has been one calamity after another for a long run, now. Even, so, there is always someone who makes me smile (you all know who you are, and I think you are awesome), something that’s worthwhile, something that truly matters, every single day. I just have to open my senses to discover it. Each day that I can love and be loved is a glorious day. Each day of life is a one-of-a-kind gift, no matter what it brings. It's all a matter of perspective.

Kitty Foyle: Boy or Girl?

Dr. Mark: Boy. Almost lost the little fella. (Looks dolefully around the poor apartment.) Mighta been better if he hadn't pulled through.

Kitty Foyle: Don't say that, Mark. It's always better to pull through.

Kitty Foyle (RKO, 1940)
Make lemonade spectacularly. You only live once.

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Thursday, July 29, 2010

MADly Creative — WWNT?

First I read Forget Brainstorming – What you think you know about fostering creativity is wrong. A look at what really works, which led me to The death of brainstorming. Newsweek got it wrong.

I read the exchanges between the Newsweek writers and the brainstorming consultants with interest. Both sides had valid points.

Nonetheless, I think the solution to getting more creativity back into American business has little to do with either side's arguments.

I am no creativity expert—just a member of the “lay audience” who has participated in brainstorming using various techniques ranging from chaotic "skeet shooting" to expert-facilitated ideation. My personal observation is that creativity has no One True Method. Even I, as an individual, have no One True Method that is right for me in every situation.

I do think that creativity can be elevated by setting up conditions that encourage it. In my humble opinion, the key conditions are time (to think, revise, dream), stimuli (i.e., new information, for which the source can be any interaction: human, media, environment, etc.), and passion (around the topic).

In my personal experience, I've been inspired even in badly organized skeet-shooting-type brainstorming environments when it was the right mix of people in the room and we were all passionate about the topic. We stimulated and built upon each other's ideas and were so passionate about the topic that it played in our subconscious minds even when we shifted focus to other tasks. We'd keep spontaneously regrouping to hash out another component of the idea as it occurred to us. Creativity was not only stimulated; it could not be restrained.

I have also seen a whole room of very clever people limp through the torture of producing nothing of significance even within exceedingly well facilitated brainstorming sessions. These dreadful, costly experiences usually occurred when the people involved just weren't truly invested in the topic. (I'm not talking about need or urgency here—the demand for a solution may be very real and you may be passionate about finding a solution, but sometimes you just don't have any passion around the topic itself that is to be brainstormed.) In these times creativity seems tremendously forced; that's when it fails, despite the best process expert being on hand to lead the exercise.

My best creative ideas come from doing a lot of reading, thinking, discussing, thinking, writing, thinking over a period of time (I guess it's that that whole "letting several simultaneous ideas percolate" method). Then, when inspiration strikes, it's like fire because my subconscious, I presume, has already been at work fitting the pieces together.

I think the biggest obstacle to creativity in business today is that we have no time—we're "doing more with less," structured, gated, LEAN, etc. until people don't have a single spare second to mentally process potentially inspiring stimuli beyond a very superficial level. (Don't get me wrong—these methods are hugely important in fully developing and executing the outcomes of creativity to extract the most value, but they don't generate creativity.) People are stretched so thin in today's corporation that the stress diminishes the ability to be functional at a high level, let alone creative. Necessity may be the mother of invention (and I'm not entirely convinced of that, either—necessity may simply be the impetus to get the resources you need for possible creative work), but desperation isn't.

So, IMHO, the heart of the solution lies in organizational design, not of finding the best brainstorming method or consultant.

WWNT? (What would Newsweek think?)

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Notes from My Digital Compost Heap

I make a lot of notes as I survey business or technical literature. Sometimes they form the basis of future work, and sometimes they just gather digital dust. Rather than allowing so many bits and bytes to forever languish on my hard drive, I've decided to start publishing them as blog posts. Who knows, maybe my germ of a thought can add to your next breakthrough idea.

First retrieved from my digital compost heap are notes I made after reading Innovation is Not a Strategy (, Sept. 8, 2009) and the comments following the post. Personally, I think innovation can be a strategy.

First of all, what is innovation? Innovation isn’t invention, nor is it adding “nice to have” features to existing products. My best definition of innovation is filling an unmet need in an entirely new way in which the customer finds substantive value. This may be a new-to-the-world product (TiVo*), transforming an existing product into something that operates very differently (Glad Forceflex*), or the total re-invention of an old idea (Swiffer WetJet – it’s really just a mop, but by eliminating the need for a bucket, the whole process of cleaning the floor changes dramatically). All of these ideas introduce something new to the world and customers recognize and value it.

When invention meets value, it becomes innovation. It may take a long time for that value to be realized, but for innovations like the internet, which took a long, long time for invention to meet value, the magnitude of the value when it does “hit” quells any doubt that it was innovation.

Although sales can be an indicator of value, value is not sales. Fads sell, but there is no substantive value to the consumer. Value is defined as relative worth and return on investment. I suspect most former pet rock owners became disenchanted with Sedimentary Fido soon after purchase.

So, can innovation be a strategy? I think it can, but it only works within a larger vision.

Pepsi, which cranks out inventions regularly, seems to lack vision. It builds the soft-drink version of the pet rock repeatedly. It responds to trends like health consciousness and environmental responsibility superficially with small variations on existing products. I think this cheapens the brand image, although a brand like Pepsi has been around for so long that maybe it can sustain the knocks of repeated innovation failures on the chance that something will hit.

Google or Apple, on the other hand, have strong vision and are able to translate invention into innovation over and over again to the acclaim of pretty much everybody other than Microsoft. They have failures, but they're overshadowed by the big hits. They start by saying things like, "If X were designed today, what would it look like?" They don't use their existing products to tether them to a starting point; they start from scratch every time. Yet, the pieces all fit together because they align with the larger vision.

Pepsi, Apple, and Google all are profitable and have power brands, but a reputation of innovation also draws passionate consumers that are not only the source of sales dollars but unpaid marketers of the brand with their fierce loyalty. They draw in other consumers and make each product launch a phenomenon. Innovation as a strategy? Looks like it to me.

For some companies, it may be the dominant strategy at times and a crucial factor in maintaining the brand. For U.S.-based manufacturing companies whose products have become commodities, it must be.

The innovation strategy may be cannibalistic (i.e., trade-up) or it may be redefining the product portfolio because technological advances obsolete the old products (however slowly). The latter requires a company to look very hard at its core competencies and decide how best to apply them beyond the company's traditional boundaries. Consider how brilliantly Amazon did this.

With good leadership and strong vision, a new innovative product, even one that in no way resembles the old (“big time innovation”*), could be the new flagship of the brand. Why not leverage a strong brand for a strong new product? Of course, this must be managed expertly, or you're just Pepsi with another useless sku.

Of course, I'm no expert. Just a businessperson and a consumer.

* Special thanks to Jeannie Chan who provided the examples of TiVo and Forceflex as innovations in her comment to the post that I referenced, above. She also used the term “big time innovation,” which I also re-used – the term has been used by others, but she should have credit for inspiring me to use that term in this post. Make sure you scroll down past the post and read her comment, among others.

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Sunday, July 25, 2010

On This Day, O Beautiful Mother

Yoko Ono transformed one of her artworks into an online format called My Mommy is Beautiful. She encourages each of us to post a picture of our mother and give tribute to her in words or other creative expression. My beautiful mother died two weeks ago after a long and full life. Until now, I could not find the words to describe the exquisite and complex beauty of my mother. I still can't do her justice, but here is my noble effort.

My mommy was beautiful.

Mom was an educator. When I was little, Mom always sang as she worked around the house. She had a clear, sweet voice, and I loved to sing along with her as she explained our world through song. She was a marvelous storyteller, and described her childhood, especially memories of her beloved father who died when I was still a toddler, with spellbinding detail. She played games with me so that I’d learn language, math, and logic, and taught me to read so early on that I don’t remember ever not being able to read. Mom had been a teacher before I was born, while she was raising my older siblings, and her passion for teaching was in her very marrow.

Mom was busy and energetic. She drank a lot of coffee, ate very little, never touched alcohol, and smoked a half pack of cigarettes a week, because that’s what women of her generation did. She preferred walking to driving. She hated driving, actually. Yet, she would never let her fears keep her from doing what she wanted. She’d white-knuckle the steering wheel as we drove through the park’s dreaded fiords to visit her widowed younger sister in a neighboring community. In nice weather, she'd happily leave the car in the garage, put my baby sister in the stroller, and walk us to the store. She helped out elderly neighbors, driving them to doctor’s appointments or running errands for them. She visited anyone she remotely knew in the hospital. She sent greeting cards signed with her perfect, schoolteacher handwriting. She volunteered at school and church.

Mom was the queen of frugality. She economized with unfathomable skill, balanced her checkbook to the last penny, probably saved billions through her legendary use of coupons, but still always had a nickel to buy me a pretzel rod from the big jar on the counter of the store at the corner. She’d always buy me and my sister sensible, sturdy, out-of-style shoes for school because they needed to last the whole year. Yet, on my birthday, I’d always receive a tastefully fashionable outfit that made me feel like a princess.

Mom was a woman of faith. I often saw her lips moving ever so slightly as I heard the almost imperceptible click of rosary beads slipping through her fingers in her pocket. She went to mass each morning, especially enjoying school masses, which reminded her of her teaching days. On Sunday, we were all expected to dress up and be on our best behavior for mass, which was always followed by Mom’s wonderful Sunday brunch.

Mom took her career as homemaker seriously. Dad is soft spoken and all heart; Mom was small of stature but powerful in spirit. Dad was the provider, but there was no doubt that Mom was always in charge, the unchallenged organizer of the household. She labeled and filed everything and kept us on track by a system of refrigerator notes. The house was always tidy, clothes were always clean, and the refrigerator was always stocked. Her cooking was simple, but the food was delicious and plentiful. Being of Sicilian descent, she made fantastic pizza and lasagna, and there were always meatballs in the refrigerator, up until the week she died. She loved it when anyone entering the house went straight to the refrigerator and helped himself; to Mom, that was the ultimate compliment.

Mom and Dad were a sharp couple. Mom was slim and shapely, and Dad is classically dapper. On Monday nights, she and Dad went bowling, and Mom would dance around the house all day in jubilant anticipation. On special dressy occasions, when Mom and Dad would hire a babysitter for a big night out, Mom would put on her black pumps, red lipstick, and pearls that Dad gave her on their wedding day, and with a crowning dab of Chanel No. 5, she'd transform into a glamour girl who I thought looked and smelled like a movie star. The smell of her perfume would linger in the air all evening and make me drift off to sleep dreaming of my beautiful mother. In the morning, Mom always had a little surprise for me—a piece of cake wrapped in a napkin, or, if I were very lucky, her corsage from the previous evening. She'd pin the flower on my shoulder and let me wear it all day so that a little of her sparkle dusted over me, too.

Mom’s smile was dazzling and her laugh was genuine. A lot of laughing happened when she talked long-distance with her mother every Saturday night or when she got together with her best friend, Dorie. She laughed a lot less, and was silent and contemplative a lot more, after Grandma's mind and health faded and after Dorie died from cancer much too young. Dad’s best friend died young, too, as did Dad’s brother. As my parents’ circle of young friends and relatives tragically dwindled, my parents’ life became considerably more sedate, routine, and focused on us. Dad always worked long hours and Saturdays; Mom, I think, was lonely.

Mom had grit, but suffered great heartaches. Mom experienced an undue share of loss, disappointment, and worry in the years just before I was born and while I was yet a child and ignorant of my parents’ concerns. By the time I was a teenager and young adult, it seemed that the cumulative effect of Mom’s burdens, especially from my perspective of a stereotypically aggrieved teenager, was irrational distrust of of me. Mom's rules seemed unbending and her expectations impossibly high. It was not all unpleasantness—we enjoyed playing games and watching TV together. We went shopping nearly every Saturday afternoon, and Mom would cheerfully watch my younger sister and I model the latest styles. I wondered then why Mom never shopped for herself, but later realized that when her middle-age spread forced her despairing retreat to a uniform of polyester sportswear, Mom, bittersweetly, tranferred her fashion attention to her daughters. Though Mom's attitude distressed me then, I know now that Mom was just in the normal throes of middle age, amplified by too much rapidfire heartache and my somewhat oversensitive youth.  

Mom was a paradox. She and Dad never had resources or time to travel much, but my sister and I developed a serious passion for international travel as younger adults. As we traveled the world, Mom, incongruously with her frugal nature, heartily encouraged us to take every trip, even when funds were low. She seemed proud and fiercely protective of our careers and independence, though she had chosen a different path for herself. She shocked us with unexpected liberal statements, inconsistent with her outward conservativeness. I think she regretted not taking more chances and chasing more dreams before age and health became limiting.

Mom was my greatest champion. When I became a mother, Mom already was both a grandmother and great-grandmother many times over. She held my hand through sorrows, celebrated joys, and, most importantly, walked with me through the unremarkable in-between times. She loved marveling at each loose tooth, hearing the kids learn to read, holding the youngest grandchildren on her lap, feeding the kids all the cookies they would eat, and proudly displaying their artwork and photographs. In recent years, she encouraged me constantly, praised my smallest personal victories, and helped me to forgive myself for my maternal failings. The woman who I had perceived as dominating, distant, and disapproving in my youth, revealed a vulnerable, understanding, supportive nature that hearkened to my early childhood. She tried to guide me through life's overwhelming burdens as I entered middle age, recalling those years when she'd lost so many key people in her own support system. She told me stories about herself that I had never heard with frank descriptions of her feelings, fears, regrets, and joys. I felt the acceptance and unconditional love I’d felt as a child, only with the added richness of a shared bond of womanhood.

Mom was indomitable. The last 6 months of Mom’s life were a shock to my family. The woman who had rarely had a cold, who put a heart attack behind her in a few short weeks so that she could resume mowing the lawn and shoveling snow, the woman who nursed my father through major health issues so that he continues to far outlive all of his relatives, the one we thought would live forever through sheer stubbornness, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Up until the last few days of her life, she was still cooking and sneaking out in her car to go shopping, under my father’s radar, albeit with shuffling feet and a certain unsteadiness. She scolded us all until her last moments, telling me to go home because she didn’t want me to drive in the dark, telling my Dad to stop coddling her, telling all of us that she didn’t want to leave this earth when we said it was okay—she would make that decision. She would not be silenced—even when her tongue was parched and swollen and morphine alone could no longer quell the pain, Mom asked our Holy Mother to pray for her, saying the rosary one last time as my older sister slipped the beads through Mom’s fingers. She orchestrated her final moments, making sure we all fulfilled our roles, as if she were still leaving instructions for us on the refrigerator door.

My mommy was truly beautiful. A couple of weeks before she died, after Mom had stopped coloring her hair in an effort to preserve it through chemotherapy, her hairdresser gave her a tight perm to make Mom’s thin, light hair look fuller. I marveled at her shining, soft, white curls and remarked that her hair was simply gorgeous against the paler, softer skin that was testimony to her 80 years. Her eyes lit up indescribably with the pure joy of feeling loved, beautiful, and happy in her own skin and with her tremendous life. In that moment, I saw a dazzling flash of that stunning, feisty, sweet-smelling woman in black pumps, red lipstick, and pearls, who knew she was a looker, always had a song, a story, a prayer, and a lesson on her lips, and was ready to conquer the world while holding my tiny hand in hers.

I miss you, my beautiful, beautiful mother, so very much.

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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Amazon Bright and Beautiful

The area of e-content has much yet to be defined, but Amazon has a clever strategy, as I knew they would.

In the swirling e-content maelstrom, as publishers and aggregators see their old profit models implode and device manufacturers rush to meet consumer e-reading demand, Amazon is in the calm eye of the storm. Stephen Windwalker, Editor of Kindle Nation, blogged yesterday about Amazon's economic imperative to move into e-content, but notes that the company's strategy was born of vision, not desperation:

If Amazon hadn't gone the ebook route, but we were still somehow on the way to Mike Shatzkin's prediction, quoted in yesterday's New York Times that within a decade, fewer than 25 percent of all books sold will be print versions, then Amazon would be a company whose core business was dying.
It seems clear...that (1) Amazon did see that future…(2) neither the company nor CEO Jeff Bezos panicked…(3)…Amazon was hard at work turning the nightmare of the declining print-book future into…a Kindle content ecosystem that is either enormously attractive...or too powerful to ignore…
Amazon's strategy is working. Since the Apple iPad and its corresponding Kindle app were launched, Amazon's sales units of paid Kindle books has trended upwards, with last month's unit sales outpacing hardcover sales by 80%. As Windwalker humorously illustrates:
Apple (AAPL) put out a press release Tuesday to announce that they shipped over 12 million more Kindle-compatible devices during the fiscal quarter that ended in June, bring the worldwide total of Kindle-compatible devices to over 2 billion…that's not exactly the way Apple spun its quarterly earnings news, but that may be the way that Amazon's Jeff Bezos and his Kindle team heard it.
When Amazon announced last month that Almost Every Non E-Paper Kindle Getting Audio and Video Embeds, Gizmodo summarized:
Amazon's own e-book reader won't be able to play back video or audio embedded in e-books the way the iPod touch, iPhone and iPad will… it probably doesn't matter too much to Amazon, who stands to make a killing on the books themselves…
Those of us working for consumer goods companies understand the wisdom of Amazon's "blades" approach to e-content. (Give away the device; make money on the refills. See: The Economics of Kindle: Why e-readers are looking like razors and razor blades by Lee Gomes, Amazon created the market to its own specifications with the Kindle e-reader, and when the market reached critical mass, reverted to its core competency of content distribution. Well done, Amazon.

Especially resonant with me (see #6 here) is Amazon's approach of coopetition. Per Windwalker:
When Amazon opened its "big tent" in 1999 to launch…Amazon Marketplace, the company took the rest of the online and brick-and-mortar economy to school on the unlikely but surprisingly elegant notion that every competitor is a potential partner.

Strategy is about knowing your field, recognizing momentum, and finding a way to harness—or propel—it to everyone's benefit.

When I have my library hat on, I know that there is still a lot to figure out about e-content, especially lending (so many current barriers), digital copies of print works already owned (not economical in current models), and technical literature (not available or not formatted well across various devices).

Still, how different (read: cool) content lending will look in 5 years! We have many opportunities to merge devices with e-content answers (proprietary and external literature), and to develop interesting new gateways to e-content resources for internal customers. We're gonna ride that momentum!

BTW, I believe that the entire worldwide web eventually will consolidate under 3 key sites: Amazon (commerce), Wikipedia (content), and Facebook (networks) ;)

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Friday, May 28, 2010

Right here, right now

One of my favorite bloggers/tweeps/authors, Patti Digh, has a unique graduation gift idea for her daughter. She is assembling an e-book of advice made up of contributions from others.

I toyed with the idea of writing something for the e-book, but gave it up as silly after reading contributions from people of note, considering that:
  1. I don't actually know Patti beyond Twitter.
  2. I don't know Patti's daughter at all (not even a single tweet of connection), so what wisdom could I possibly impart to her?
  3. I'm not "known" beyond my own little corner of the universe and have few credentials as a writer, artist, etc.
  4. Who am I to give advice to young adults?
Then, I read one of Patti's blog posts, "How to write (a book). A wee rant." After reading it, I felt compelled to submit something for the e-book. After all, I really do love writing and I seem to have some insight about people. Not much risk to just sending an email. I mean, who would ever know? So what if they did?

So I did it.

I wrote about a lesson I'm still learning, but am practicing with more skill every day. It's a lot like that bumper sticker you see everywhere, "One Day at a Time." It merely took me half a lifetime to undersand what that really means.

And, now that I actually wrote it all down, I like it. And I want to share it. So, here is my advice to a 17-year-old stranger, in all its 350-words-or-less glory:

Consider this: Right now is always the best moment of your life

My kids sometimes ask, “Mommy, what was your favorite age?” I answer truthfully, “The age I am.”

Or, they ask, “What was the best time you ever had?” I explain (in simpler words – my kids are young), “I’ve had amazingly memorable times, such as each of your births. But, the best time is right now because this moment is built upon all of those times plus endless possibilities, and I am creating it.”

Right now is always the best moment of your life.

Learn from and laugh about the past, build and dream for the future, but live now. Be fully in the present. Extract every bit of nowness surrounding you and absorb it into your cells. With every experience, every thought, and every feeling, more of who you are emerges.

You are doing something, thinking something, feeling something right now – good, bad, cheesy, brilliant, joyful, painful, dull, thrilling, or a million other possibilities. And, it is wonderful. You will never have a moment exactly like this one again. That’s wonderful, too.

Being in the now makes it easier to handle anything, regret nothing, and love life – and everyone and everything in it – in all its wonderful, endearing imperfection. Nothing is overwhelming, insurmountable, or unforgivable when it is considered in moment-sized parcels. Conversely, the tsunami of joy that can surge through your soul in a single moment defies reason. It’s a beautifully imbalanced equation.

Right now is always the best moment of your life.

Additional note: She posted it! Look here.

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Friday, May 21, 2010

What people really want is a Star Trek tricorder

Star Trek Classic Tricorder
Photo by David B. Spalding

While searching for information on the elements of good design, I came across this post from September 2009 by IDEO CEO Tim Brown. Brown talks about bridging Six Sigma with his trademark innovation mantra, Design Thinking.

In Brown’s post, he quotes Chuck Jones of Whirlpool, who compared design thinkers to quantum physicists (concerned with multiple possibilities) and everyone else (including Six Sigma practitioners) to Newtonian physicists (concerned with defined measurement). Brown confesses that, because of these differences, he once was highly skeptical of Design Thinking's ability to operate in a Six Sigma environment, thinking that Six Sigma was toxic to innovation. He now thinks that Six Sigma can help new ideas get better faster by improving product quality and functionality in the implementation phase. He also suggests that perhaps we should cycle between Design Thinking and Six Sigma in the product development process. He wraps up by saying, "…the biggest challenge will be to build business cultures that are agile enough to incorporate both."

In the reader comments, someone posted what I was thinking as I read his post, that Design for Six Sigma (DFSS) may be an attempt to marry Design Thinking with Six Sigma. However, I'm not sure if DFSS, which, as I understand it, relies on the voice of the customer, fully integrates the concept of Design Thinking, or more specifically, the component of breakthrough innovation.

Lorenzo Kidd and I were discussing innovation the other day and the difference between the smaller product innovations that significantly alter a common action (via a systems thinking approach) and the huge innovations that change the entire game, moving all of us in a new direction (via something more akin to complexity theory, perhaps?).

My favorite example of a smaller, albeit breakthrough, product innovation is P&G's Swiffer® WetJet®, which fundamentally changed the way we keep floors clean. There’s still a need to mop the floor the old-fashioned way periodically for a more thorough cleaning than WetJet® provides, but one can maintain a much cleaner floor between full moppings while feeling the need to drag out the old mop much less often. WetJet® removed the biggest pain of floor-washing: the bucket. This substantially lowered the user’s resistance to cleaning the floor. I suspect that P&G didn't frame their goal as creating a better mop or floor soap, but as finding an easier way to achieve a consistently clean floor. Did customers articulate this need? Maybe. But if they'd asked me, would I have said I would be willing to mop the floor more frequently? No! Yet that's exactly what people do, quite willingly, because it is just so darn easy to have consistently cleaner floors via a minute or two of effort here and there with a WetJet®. So, despite being somewhat counterintuitive, WetJet® clearly satisfied an immediate, unmet, hard-to-define customer need in a new way.

But what about those things that aren't so clearly tied to voice of the customer? Things that make us scratch our heads for years and say, "Why would anyone ever use that?" The things that businesses first shrug off as irrelevant or disruptive to operations? Things that are endlessly criticized in the news? Things that, years after they are introduced, become so integrated into our lives that we wonder how on earth we survived without them?

You know, like the internet.
Personal computers.
3G phones.
Rechargeable batteries.
Social media.

The needs behind these breakthrough innovations were so far from anything the customer could have possibly fathomed or articulated that, in a business environment, where products are determined by voice of the customer, the breakthrough ideas behind them could have died in their infancy. These ideas were so incredibly ahead of their time—radically predating what I suspect most product development teams would have been capable of relating to the voice of the customer. But, if they wouldn't have been developed as early they were, we would not be benefitting from them today.

And these ideas changed everything.

I think the true breakthrough innovations come from accurately figuring out what the customer will need, but can't possibly understand yet. It requires seeing much further down the road of progress than anyone else can. It's figuring out in the late 1960s that what people really want is a Star Trek Tricorder even though it seems like ridiculous science fiction (Lorenzo's example) and pursuing it until it doesn't seem so unattainable after all. Maybe it's more like listening to the whisper of the customer's subconscious than the clear and lucid voice of the customer.

How do we do that?

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Friday, May 7, 2010

Give Peace a Chance

Wikimedia Commons photo by Lennyjjk, 2009-05-20
Imagine circle, Strawberry Fields Memorial, Central Park

I recently read an e-book on, Yoko Ono’s web site. And for the first time, I got it.

Of course, everybody knows about John Lennon and Yoko Ono, even if, like me, you are too young to have watched their antics in real time.

I’ve always loved Beatles music and thought John Lennon was an artistic genius. Not only do I enjoy his music, but I also enjoy his published writings and doodles, and old sound bytes of the things he said are greatly amusing and insanely clever. My kids’ bedroom is decorated with a border created from Lennon’s artwork — not in homage to John Lennon, but just because I thought it was joyfully playful when I was selecting decorating items for the nursery.

Then there’s Yoko Ono, also an artistic genius, but much less attainable than pop-icon Lennon. You may love her or not, but she's made her mark on the world every bit as much as her late husband in her unique way and on her own terms. Personally, I like that.

We’ve all seen old video of their honeymoon week in bed and, though amused, puzzled over the point of it.

We’ve all heard old recordings of their rants on peace, rolled our eyes, and thought, “Crazy idealists!”


I always thought of them as stereotypical celebrity artists — lost in a fantasy world, spewing wonderful thoughts but taking no meaningful action. It’s easy to evangelize and wax poetic about ideals and virtue when you are worshipped by thousands and have absolutely everything you will ever want or need in the physical world and are unencumbered by worries over how to make ends meet.

Of course, we all want peace. Of course, we all need love. Duh. Why on earth did John and Yoko think it was so important to keep telling us to give peace a chance and that all we needed was love? What an inane message. Nice and all. True, of course. But pretty ineffective overall. Insubstantial. Typical of the impotent creative types that operate only in their minds, never translating their lofty ideals into meaningful action. Theory is great, but you’ve got to do something to make it count.

Well, maybe they were — and Yoko still is — doing something.

There will always be a handful of people who do BIG things: Mother Theresa taking care of the poorest of the poor for 40 years in Calcutta; Martin Luther King, Jr. who advocated civil rights; Mohatma Gandhi who nonviolently campaigned for civil rights and whose work helped gain independence for his country. The world was truly blessed by the altruism of these incredible humanitarian heroes.

There are people who are less well known who tirelessly do great work, too. Unsung heroes doing social work, manning local shelters, traveling to forgotten corners of the world with humanitarian aid organizations, rallying neighbors to gather supplies for victims of disasters, raising countless dollars for cancer research and other causes. Those who minister to the downtrodden, feed the hungry, clothe the poor. Amazingly selfless people. Amazingly generous people. Much better people than I will ever be.

Let’s face it, the vast majority of us are not altruistic. Oh, we may make an effort here and there, volunteering and contributing to worthy causes. We have our charitable moments and make our contributions of treasure and time, which is very, very important. But, for most of us, the bulk of our day-to-day effort is not devoted to humanitarian pursuits; it is devoted to muddling through our own lives.

With only minimal persuasion, we may even become sheeple:

Of course the people don't want war. But after all, it's the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it's always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it's a democracy, a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism, and exposing the country to greater danger.

Herman Goering at the Nuremberg trials

John and Yoko understood that. They accepted us (and themselves) for who we are. Flawed. Easily led astray. Scared. Self-involved. Human. And, they didn’t judge. They decided that the biggest impact could be made by addressing the majority exactly as we are and keeping their plan for change so simple that no one would be unable to do what they proposed. Imagine Peace. Just imagine it. Why? Because, while we are imagining peace, cognitive dissonance prevents us from thinking of a way to do harm. While we are actively imagining peace, we can only act in a consistently peaceful way. If everyone did that, all of the evil in the world would disappear — simple in theory, difficult to do. It’s a slow process of conversion.

This world is separated into two industries: one being the war industry and the other being the peace industry. People who are in the war industry are totally unified by their ideas. They want to make war, kill, and make money. There is no argument there. They just get on with their objectives. Therefore, in that sense, they are a tremendously powerful force. But the people in the peace industry are like me: they are idealists and perfectionists. So they cannot agree with each other. They're always arguing in the pursuit of the "perfect idea." They are asking themselves and each other "What is the best way to get peace? Of course, it's MY way. What's wrong with YOUR way is that..." But instead of doing that, if we can only try to accept each other, forgive the differences and appreciate each other...because the fact is that all of us are in the peace industry. We should bless each other for that, and through that togetherness, somehow, we may be able to make the peace industry just as viable as the war industry, or more.

Yoko Ono
Mix A Building
With The Wind, 2002

So, instead of wasting energy on high-profile actions (e.g., protest marches) often resulting more in the participants feeling good about themselves through the affirmation of the group than in actually doing good for others through quiet industry, John and Yoko decided that more impact would result from trying to encourage personal, individual, simple, everyday, common participation of the unambitious masses. Imagine Peace. On your own. For 10 minutes per day. And, in that time, imagine what you can do immediately to start realizing that vision. Simple things. Calling your mother to say, “I love you.” Smiling at someone who looks like they need a smile. Reaching out with your heart.

The thing that bothered most of our revolutionary brothers was the fact that we weren't against anything, just for things, you know, like Peace and Love.

John Lennon
The Ballad of John and Yoko, 1978

Instead of applying money toward treating the symptoms of the problem (e.g., giving money to charity — although I’m sure they did that, too, and certainly would acknowledge that you must also treat the symptoms until the root problem is resolved), they decided to invest in trying to prevent the problem from occurring in the first place, knocking down the root cause of misery in the world. Thus, they began advertising for peace.

The thing is, we have this poster that says War Is Over If You Want It.

The war is here now and there's two ways of looking at it. Some people say, "Why did you spend your money on posters or peace campaigns? Why didn't you give it to the Biafran children, or something like that?"

And we say, "We're trying to prevent cancer, not cure it."

John Lennon, 1970

It took me until well into adulthood, when life becomes so fraught with energy-draining problems and responsibilities that one is forced to adopt a more realistic and forgiving view of human nature (or else, lose your mind), to understand what John and Yoko started advertising 40 years ago. I may not have the commitment and selflessness, time and energy, resources and talents to do the BIG things, but I certainly can, despite all of my shortcomings and humanitarian laziness, simply Imagine Peace for 10 minutes per day. And if I can, so can you. And so can everyone else. And together, we can create what we imagine. Creation trumps destruction, if only we can include more people in the creation process.

It’s already happening.

When I was thinking that world peace was very important, there were only about 20 people thinking that and they were handing out brochures that most people couldn't read!

Now I think that the concept of world peace is a normal one, and likewise, art too.

In the old days when we were artists, we felt pretty special, but now I think most people are participating in some kind of artistic activity and that's very good.

That's how our society's changing in a way. Even with guitars.

When the bands were playing in the 60's, there were very few people who played guitars, and now most children in schools know how to play guitars, so it's a very different society now.

Yoko Ono

In my experience, John and Yoko are right. A small, seemingly insignificant kindness that someone extends to me because they have taken a moment to Imagine Peace (whether or not they know it) not only makes me happy, but inspires me to spread the joy. I do better, without even trying. What could have been a few moments of anger, destruction, exclusion, or indifference suddenly is replaced with love, creation, inclusion, and engagement. Peace propagates. The world is a better place.

Damn. That’s brilliant.

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Friday, March 26, 2010

It's Good to Be 4

Last Monday, I was pounding away on my laptop while sitting sideways on the couch, feet up. My 4-year-old little guy snuggled in beside me, smooshed between the back cushions of the couch and the side of my ribs. This is his favorite spot from which to watch me work, and he’s no trouble because he just quietly watches me type. It’s like having a warm and cushiony armrest.

After a little while, I noticed that he was breathing deeply. I asked, are you okay, sweetie? He said simply, “I like the smell of you.”

Over the weekend, we’d gone to a wedding and my husband put on his suit. This is a rarity. When he came downstairs, our little guy gasped and said, “Daddy, you look so beautiful!”

From an adult, we would have questioned the propriety of these statements. But, from a 4-year-old they are precious. 4-year-olds don’t think it's odd to comment on the way someone smells (when they’re not wearing cologne, that is) or to describe a man as beautiful (unless you’re a boy-crazy teenager), but most adults would re-word these thoughts before uttering them. Why is that? Children say exactly what they are thinking without censoring themselves with political correctness and social norms. They have endless confidence because they haven’t yet learned to try to shield themselves from failure. Everything in their world is experimental and learning-oriented, and failure is just a natural part of it. Certainly, we all need to learn to edit our inner monologues, letting out only what improves relationships and situations. This is part of being an adult. But, maybe, we edit too much. Maybe, we edit out the creativity and the impetus for change.

When was the last time you shared a still-fuzzy, crazy idea and just “talked it out” right on the spot? Do you jump in and contribute or mentally wordsmith until an opportunity to contribute has passed? How often do you ask a question or offer an opinion in a meeting even though you worry it might sound dumb or be unpopular? Do you dig deep and find the real truth when it is needed to prompt positive change? Are you willing to mix it up with people so that ideas are fully explored? Are you willing to tell your own personal stories for the benefit of others, even though disclosure makes you feel vulnerable? Do you address difficult issues even though it may alter the perceptions others have about you?

When I hit a certain age, a voice inside my head said, “Who cares what others think? You know your stuff, so stick to your guns! If niceness and positive spin obscure the goals, don't be nice! And, while you’re at it, take some responsibility for helping others to do the same.” Another friend describes it as no longer “suffering fools.”

So, I fired a few of my inner censors. And, yes, way too often I feel as if I’m sticking my neck out alone. But, if someone doesn’t demonstrate that being genuine, taking some risks, and respectfully disagreeing with others can be done without resultant catastrophe, how will anyone else ever feel safe enough to try? And how will we ever make changes if we’re too scared to discuss the real issues? Or dream up the breakthrough ideas if we are too afraid of failure? Or help others if we are too scared to look our own personal truth in the eye?

Take a chance. Rediscover you inner 4-year old amidst your grown-up insight and experience. Maybe by taking a step back toward childhood we can step that much closer to creativity and positive change.