Monday, March 29, 2010

Getting Away From Everything Except Myself

When some friends invited me along on a short camping trip, my energy spiked. I have been falling into a pattern of "doing" and "accomplishing" without taking time to actually value myself, and a camping trip seemed like the perfect opportunity to get away from the perceived need to always be busy. On top of that, the weather this weekend was about as perfect as it will ever be in Texas, and my favorite 3-year-old girl was going to be there to boot.

The trip was wonderful. We ate some incredible food that no one who truly loves roughing it would ever associate with camping, including skewers of what has come to be known affectionately as "Randy's Wikken Chicken". We had brought along a few cards games and a bocce ball set which held our attention for short stretches, and the scenery at the campsite held its own placid beauty despite roving bands of rambunctious boy scouts. And through it all, we were constantly invited to pay complete and utter attention to an incredibly energetic young child.

And here's where I realize what I missed out on. During all of our adult card games and bocce ball and food preparation and consumption, we expected to a certain extent that a three-year-old would "behave herself" and let us adults enjoy our camping trip. Sure, our attention to her seemed incessant from our perspective, but throughout the weekend, I was almost always engaging in some specific activity. Sitting quietly listening to a dozen bird songs blending with the rhythm of a cereal-crunching munchkin in my lap was actually the most satisfying moment of the trip. And yet I spent a great deal of time on structured events... doing instead of just being.

When I let a child guide my conversation and activity, it is a moment-by-moment ever-shifting adventure. That can be a bit intimidating to someone who loves to have details planned out, and it can be very freeing once I get past the anxiety of not knowing what's about to happen. Structure certainly has its place, but structured activity is by its very nature limited. If I want to be expanding my creativity and dreaming bigger, it makes sense to set aside some bona fide free time. My bet is that willingness to play is a major contributor to quality of life, and its certainly something I know how to do. If I just remember to give myself permission.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Finding the Gift

Some people say that everything happens for a reason. My own belief is that whatever happens holds a gift for me, a lesson that can propel me forward, even if only slightly. On the one hand, I understand why someone would be comforted by the idea that their auto collision happened as a part of a greater plan. That concept bothers me, though. Not only is there no way to know whether or not it's true, the idea defers responsibility and credit for the events of my life. If I happen to be in an auto collision, however, I believe that I can find at least one gift in that experience if I look for it. Some verifiable truth about myself, or other people, or life itself.

This afternoon, I spent a few hours at a community celebration of the Persian New Year. I am not Persian (although I was told that I have a Persian nose!), so I was a bit of an outsider in the festivities. As I observed people, I saw a great deal of connection among them. It was a bona fide display of community. And when I mentioned this to someone, he replied in a very matter-of-fact tone, "Many of the people are here because they cannot be in their own country, and yet they do not feel a sense of belonging in America. So it is important to them to be connected with people who share that in common."

Unable to be in community with some of their loved ones who remain behind, they are living in a place where they have greater chance for safety and success. Yet there are frequent reminders that they are cultural outsiders in many ways. And in the midst of that challenging situation, they find a healthy way to "belong" with one another. Many of them even envision a culture in which everyone will truly belong, but for the time being, solidarity among those with a similar cultural experience has greater importance. That connection is a gift. That unity is a strength.

Of course, there are many examples of cultures that have found that gift, even in American history. With minds that love to categorize things and itemize differences, it is a gift when we are able to focus instead on commonalities. What I found as I continued to interact with people at the celebration was an even greater gift. I was only an outsider in my own mind, as long as I was enumerating all of the differences. Despite having a radically different cultural experience, I was welcome. Although I did not share their heritage, I could appreciate it. There was willingness on both sides to find unity.

I'm not sure I believe in artificial inclusiveness, primarily because I don't believe it ultimately addresses the fundamental reason for segregation: how people think. When people are willing to see similarities and create inclusion, however, I believe there is the potential for great strength to result. And I am grateful for the opportunity to bear witness to and participate in that gift today.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Changes in the Weather

The leadership of an organization with which I was once involved recently decided that a keystone to creating their vision was clearer, open communication. I was thrilled for them, and I was a bit surprised. During my time with them, I had spoken often of the need for communication practices that were more in line with their stated purpose and mission, and my words had not been very well received by some key decision makers. Although it would have been rewarding to be acknowledged at the time and to be a part of their growth, I am encouraged that they are addressing some of the issues that have kept them from creating all that they envision. And I am not disappointed with where my own life has led.

I made a recommendation to another group just a short time ago, and I was told, "A few years ago, this wouldn't have been possible, but now the time may be right to start heading in this direction." I don't believe that the idea has any more value now, but the ability or willingness of some decision makers to embrace it has changed. And I may have become a little more skillful at presenting my insights. In fact, these two elements form a powerful dynamic that can determine whether a great idea soars or flops.

One thing I took away from both experiences is that I have great ideas. Not all of them, of course. I have plenty of ideas that miss the mark completely. But I have plenty of insights that are right on the money, too. Either way, my ideas are worth sharing. Feedback from others can help discern the unrealistic from the realistic, the absurd from the inspired. The only way to get that feedback is to share what I'm noticing and what I'm thinking. So, if nothing else, I am encouraged to keep sharing my own discoveries and ideas.

But how I share those ideas is important, too. I am learning to paint as vivid a picture as I can when I communicate my vision to others. I want to be specific enough that other people can see the possibilities I see. And I want to clearly express how they will benefit. Change is threatening to many people, primarily because our minds go crazy with worst case scenarios. And yet, actually creating the lives, relationships, or businesses we want often requires changing something. Otherwise, everybody would be perfectly happy with everything just the way it is. I realize that I can communicate possibilities in a way that helps people see how a proposed change is actually an improvement, and a step toward what they truly want. In the past, I have often taken for granted that people will see that potential for themselves.

And then there are some people who just don't want to see possibilities. No matter how clearly and effectively I communicate, I know that there are some instances in which my ideas won't be well received. In one instance, it was a single individual on a decision-making team who had a personal agenda. I don't know exactly what this person believed, but it was clear that no idea coming from me was going to gain ground. But there were more ears listening than that one closed pair. That individual is no longer on the team directing the organization's practices, and some of the ideas I conveyed are now being considered, even though I am no longer present to communicate them. Sometimes, the timing of an idea is at least as important as creating a vivid expression of its value.

So, what I value from all of these experiences is clarity about what I control and what I don't. How I communicate insights can make the difference in how those insights are received. That part is entirely in my court. And sometimes, for whatever reason, a person may be unwilling to hear what I have to say. I may be able to influence that, but often that piece is out of my hands. Being aware of that can help me to be patient, because one way or another, the weather will eventually change. And if what I want to express is important to me, especially if I see the incredible benefit that it could have for others, I can wait for the tempest to subside and try again.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Acts of Sabotage

Rehearsal is part of a musician's life. If I want to perform a piece of music flawlessly, it takes considerable practice ahead of time. Even those who improvise in performances need to rehearse on their instrument in order to pull off convincing, skillful improvisations. As a musician, I accept that how well I perform is based in part on how well I have practiced. It would make perfect sense if I transferred that philosophy into other areas of life as well.

As a step in building a business, I recently joined a networking group called BNI. The group is designed to be an ongoing source of mutual referrals, and we meet for breakfast each Wednesday. At the breakfast, every member offers a 60-second introduction of themselves, their business, and what kind of clients they are currently seeking. My first week as a part of this BNI branch, I assumed that my 60-second introduction would require very little preparation. I have been speaking in front of groups of people for many years, and since I knew the basics of what I wanted to say, I went in cold.

One minute is not a great deal of time, people. If you don't believe me, set a timer and start talking about something that ignites your passion. I wound up rushing things, and I didn't even get to everything I wanted to say. Needless to say, I realized that I wanted to be better prepared to deliver a concise, effective introduction the next week. So, the night before the next BNI breakfast, I rehearsed an introduction verbally. I didn't write anything down, but I went over it several times, tweaking a phrase here and there. On Wednesday morning, I spoke through it again in the car and believed I was much better prepared than the previous week.

No matter how prepared someone is, there is always a little bit of stress in the heat of the moment. My delivery that morning fell far short of "flawless." It was clunky at best. I forgot a piece of information and then went back and inserted it awkwardly, and I added things that diluted the basic facts I wanted to get across about myself and my business. Even though I have read time and time again about the value of writing down a presentation, some part of my brain decided that I didn't need that advice... until after the fact. I finally admitted to myself that the importance I wanted to place on my participation in the BNI group would be best served through being thoroughly prepared, and that meant more intentional rehearsal.

I had the opportunity just a couple of days later. Since I won't be able to attend the breakfast this week, I went online to the group's website and looked for a substitute from another BNI branch. The first person I contacted agreed, and invited me to his branch's breakfast on Friday (just a couple of days after my second barely-prepared introduction). Of course, he needed my 60-second introduction written down in order to present it as my substitute, so the arrangement necessitated taking the time to thoughtfully construct what I want to say. After a little time scripting the intro, I memorized it and practiced saying it aloud until I was satisfied with every aspect of it. Friday morning was a perfect opportunity to try the well-rehearsed intro with a brand new group of people.

Nailed it! I represented myself and my business with much greater authority and confidence when I practiced what I would say ahead of time. So much of what I know as a musician and a composer transfers to other areas of my life if I allow it to. But my mind sometimes sabotages what I truly want to create by convincing me that I don't have the time or skill to do something well. Or that I don't need the extra preparation because I already know what to do. The truth is that it didn't actually take very long to be well-prepared, and no matter how well I know how to do something, a little extra practice never hurts. Moreover, I am usually realistic about what I am able to accomplish when I think things through. The bottom line is that anything worth doing well is worth the time to prepare well. Something I've known, but sometimes forget.

Monday, March 8, 2010

A Terrifying Acknowledgment

When I was teaching college courses a couple of years ago, students would occasionally ask how long they were required to wait if I wasn't around at the start of class. The policy (anecdotal at least) was that students should wait 15 minutes for a professor with a Master's degree and the entire class time for a doctor. Since I had earned my terminal degree, I advised them to wait for me unless I had officially canceled class. This policy seemed unfair to some of them, perhaps even like a sort of forced respect, but it never really came into play. I was almost always early to classes I was teaching.

In fact, I am almost always early to everything. I suppose I have thought of it as polite or even respectful not to make people wait for me. I certainly waited for a few professors in graduate school, but only on a rare instance did it seem to be an inordinate amount of time. With regard to my own classes, I considered it a matter of respect to the students to start on time. I wanted to cover a lot of material, and I wanted to take advantage of every moment I had to convey that material. But I wondered recently if my sense of self-worth hasn't at some point crept in to the practice of being early, or at the very least, on time. Was I really worth waiting for? Do I arrive early because I believe I may not be worth the wait in other people's eyes?

Saturday, I accompanied about 50 young musicians in a solo and ensemble contest. In the morning, I played for students from one school's band program, and in the afternoon, I was with students from a different school's orchestra program. Plans had been made in advance to ensure I would have about an hour to get lunch in between, and I had the schedules in hand a few days ahead of time. I rehearsed with each of the students twice over the previous two weeks, so we were well-prepared on that front as well.

The judges took a little more than the allotted time with each student, which is par for the course at these events. Many of the pieces selected by the students (or their teachers) were longer than the actual time slot, and the judges typically want to give some valuable verbal feedback to students in the moment. What I didn't expect was that we would be almost an hour behind schedule by lunch time. I had ten minutes to scarf something down and get to another part of the building where the orchestra students were being judged.

Except that the orchestra students weren't in another part of the building. They were at another facility entirely, about 15 minutes away. I learned this at precisely 1:00, when I was supposed to be accompanying the first student of the afternoon. A director offered to make a phone call to the other school as I rushed out to the car and spent 20 minutes in heavy traffic mentally deriding myself. I had simply assumed that both groups of students would be in the same place. I may have heard differently at some point, but I didn't have anything written down. Now, I was holding up an entire afternoon that had been carefully scheduled because of that assumption.

I arrived at the site where the orchestra students (and parents and judges) were waiting and parked as close as I could to the front door. As I rushed up to the door, I saw a sign that directed contest participants around to the side of the building. My mind was going crazy with criticism and my heart was pounding. All of the personnel for the contest and the families of every student I was accompanying were being inconvenienced by my error. By the time I found where I was supposed to be, I was easily half an hour late. I exchanged a few words of explanation with the orchestra teacher, and I went in with the first soloist of the afternoon. And that was it. They waited for me, and once I arrived, things got back in motion.

While I don't want to become less intentional about when I arrive or how I prepare for events, the whole experience has given me an opportunity to acknowledge the value that others place on my presence. I want to be more conscientious about the details for future events, especially if there is limited time between commitments. But I also want to appreciate the respect I receive from others. When it comes down to it, I waited on my professors because I valued what they had to say. If I didn't, I probably wouldn't have shown up to class in the first place. What I have to contribute has value, too. And I'm more likely to bring myself fully forward when I recognize that.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

What To Do with Disappointment

Disappointments seem to come more frequently when I am bringing myself forward most fully. When I am trying new ways of doing things and stepping into the unknown, I experience more disappointment than when I play it safe and stay in my comfort zone. Predictability isn't ultimately satisfying, though. The big dreams and the worthwhile visions don't hang out in my comfort zone. So, if I accept that disappointment is part of the journey, what do I do with it?

Ignoring disappointment isn't always easy, even if I intend to do so. When a recent Power of Connection course didn't make enrollment, though, I had so many other irons in the fire that it was easy to get over the disappointment quickly and keep focusing on the endeavors that were in motion. I still would have liked to hold the course, but dwelling on that would have potentially taken energy away from other things that mattered to me. The down side of getting over disappointment quickly is that I don't put a plan in place for what I want to do differently in the future.

Simply dwelling on how things didn't work out the way I wanted would be counterproductive, too. At a previous job, I was disappointed that my insights were not heard or respected, and I will admit to spending some time wallowing in that frustration. When I started to examine possible causes, though, I was able to come up with several possibilities. Perhaps I could have been more descriptive in laying out my vision, since others may not have an easy time seeing the possibilities I saw. It's possible that my expectations of the position simply didn't line up with what others thought it should involve. There could have been some political maneuvering going on that had nothing to do with me. Or a few individuals may have had personal issues that weren't being addressed. Or, or, or...

When I take the time to think about why my expectations may not have lined up with reality, it offers me a chance to plan for how I can potentially come closer to what I want the next time I'm in a similar situation. And it helps me to see that there are some factors that may just be out of my control. But if I am able to recognize how telling a more vivid and compelling story can help others see more clearly what I envision, I can change how I describe the possibilities I see. If it seems most likely that a course I'm teaching would reach its maximum enrollment when others are helping to market it, I can start looking for partnerships plenty of time in advance of the next course.

In starting a new business with a wellness company, I am telling a lot of people what I'm creating and why. Some of them aren't as interested as I would like them to be, but when I return to the purpose behind what I'm doing, it becomes much easier to be invigorated by the possibilities. Many times, I have sent out a piece of music to a competition, only to learn a few months later that another composition was chosen instead of mine. I am understandably disappointed. But when I wrote the piece, winning a competition didn't really enter into my motivation.

When purposefulness slips into desperation, it can seem overwhelming that what I had hoped for didn't come to fruition. But when I remember my intention and I am open to seeing a wealth of possibility, each moment of disappointment is an opportunity to define my next steps and fine-tune my goals. I know a little more about what I want and what I can do to create it. The path is in many ways a game of trials and errors. Inspirations and adjustments. Growth.