My friend Laura Steward Atchison used to be a computer consultant. After successfully selling her business, Laura started looking at her own success. One of the things she realized is that she had worked hard at asking the right questions.
Her new book – What Would a Wise Woman Do? Questions to Ask Along the Way – focuses entirely on this concept. She begins with a discussion of how we tend to lead our lives on autopilot. This is a very powerful concept. If you get up every day and do what you did yesterday, you will tend to assume you know the right questions to ask, so you’ll put your energy on the answers.
Too many folks focus on the “answers” instead of the “questions” in life.
Laura argues that you should step back and ask yourself whether you started with the right question first. Asking different questions will necessarily lead to different answers.
This book is a great “starter” for quiet time and meditation. One of the great “starter questions” Laura asks is: “What questions am I asking myself that got me to this place?” She encourages us to use this to examine the path we’re on.
After all, if we’re not happy with our choices, we could make different choices. But more importantly, we need to realize that those choices are answers to questions. So examining the question might lead us to a completely different set of choices.
This is really a powerful point. Different answers to the same question can only have so much variation. But answers to different questions could be dramatically different from the options we’ve put in front of ourselves so far.
This excellent book discovers questions about relationships, business, personal crises, money, faith, and a lot more. If you’re interested in beginning a new kind of journey of self-examination, this is a good place to start.
Here is a quick interview I did with Laura right as she was releasing the book. I caught up with her at a technology event in Florida.
Available on Amazon in paperback or Kindle.
The Japanese have two words – Honne and Tatemae – that describe recognized social behaviors.
According to our friends at Wikipedia:
“Honne refers to a person’s true feelings and desires. These may be contrary to what is expected by society or what is required according to one’s position and circumstances, and they are often kept hidden, except with one’s closest friends.”
“Tatemae, literally ‘facade,’ is the behavior and opinions one displays in public. Tatemae is what is expected by society and required according to one’s position and circumstances, and these may or may not match one’s honne.”
The honne/tatemae concepts are very powerful in Japanese culture and represent the long-held desire to minimize conflict in public. These concepts are not unique to Japan, of course. We all feel conflict between our “public selves” and our private needs and desires.
At some level, this distinction between your personal desires and your public duties is very natural. After all, society itself exists because people are able to set aside some of their personal desires in order to bind together into a larger community. Where people become too self-centered, society falls apart. Where people become too community-centered, they lose individuality. As with everything else in life, balance is needed.
I am a big fan of the DISC profile for evaluating personality traits and helping to build the teams I work with. One of the key elements of the DISC tool is that it attempts to identify one’s natural tendencies as well as the behavior that one plays in the workplace. This distinction is very important because stress causes us to retreat back to our more natural (personal) personality. For example, a naturally shy person might be very outgoing at work on a regular day. But on a day filled with stress, that person’s shy tendency will be a lot stronger.
All too often, we only know someone in one context (work, community, play, school, etc.). As a result, we are most likely to only see their Tatemae side – the face they put on in public. This is even true of most co-workers. It is very important that we remember that the people around us have deeper, more complicated lives than what we see. Of course we already know this, but we tend to not think about it.
This whole concept is very interesting to me because it is central to the Relax Focus Succeed philosophy that stress is caused in large part by the gaps we create between the various roles we play. Ideally, you can be the same person at work, at home, at school, and in a community or church setting. But, in reality, we play different roles and bring different pieces of our personality to each of these.
This is not dishonest by any means. It is very natural. You might need to be analytical and precise at work, but you can be very loving and cuddly at home. Neither of these is dishonest, but simply two roles you play, each allowing you to draw on different traits within yourself.
Stress comes when you find yourself playing two dramatically different roles, one much more natural and comfortable than the other.
Think about your life and the roles you play. Are there other (better) roles you could be playing to reduce stress?
As the author of a book and blog called Relax Focus Succeed®, I sort of set myself up for a certain criticism. People see me running around the country talking to various groups and they say “You seem to be very busy for someone who should be relaxing more.”
Let me offer two points of clarification on this matter.
First, I *AM* relaxed. When some people travel, they rush around from one city to another, never stopping or enjoying the city they’re in. The worst part is that they stay in a bland, boring, hotel and eat fast food. So they get a sense for the “real” city and its culture.
When I travel, I add at least one day before or after each event to hang out in a city and enjoy it. This week my travels took me to Charlotte, NC and Fort Lauderdale, FL. Next week I’m off for two separate events in Portland. I took an extra day in Charlotte, saw some old friends, and got treated to a nice drive through the country (and into South Carolina).
Now I’m in Florida. And rather than flying home Friday and then off to Portland on Monday, I’m just staying here. It was 81 degrees (F) yesterday! Why not stay here? I got a hotel room on the beach and I’m going to hang out and write for five days while in Florida. Then I’ll spend four days in Portland.
Last month I needed to be in New York City for a three-hour show. I took four days . . . because it was New York City, I knew it would be dolled up for Christmas, and I had the opportunity to connect with some friends. It was relaxing and enjoyable.
I take this leisurely pace in order to enjoy myself more, connect with friends, and enjoy my life. If my includes travel, I might as well see the places I’m traveling to!
Second, I want to make sure that folks understand that the “relax” component in Relax Focus Succeed® does NOT mean that there’s no work involved. I think you should work hard if you want to achieve something. But you should also work smart. Focus like a laser beam and get things done. Build relaxation into your day, week, and month. But don’t think you’ll get away without hard work.
Focus will allow you to accomplish amazing things in a short amount of time. But you also need the relaxation component to make that work.
I am lucky to work with some wonderful people. Recently the work I do with a couple of different people has coincided with events in my personal life. And it has been a powerful experience.
Jenifer Landers (http://www.fullyexpressedcoaching.com/) is my life coach. She helps me with business and personal challenges. Because of all the changes going on in my life this year, she has talked to me about leaving space in my life for people and things to “show up.” For example, my daughter graduated from high school and will be going to college in the Fall. Yikes. That will leave a big space for me to fill.
Or, if you think about it, I don’t have to fill that space. I could just leave it open for awhile to see which opportunities arise.
Another wonderful person I work with is Kelli Wilson. Kelli recently published a book: The Clutter Breakthrough (See her blog). In this very powerful book, Kelli does NOT go through a “plan” to clean up the clutter. Instead, she looks at the root causes of clutter. Her argument is that people have painful experiences in their lives, and they fill up their lives with something in order to avoid the pain.
Some people fill these spaces with alcohol, drugs, sex, shopping, or any number of other things. The goal is not about the alcohol (etc.), but about coping mechanisms that keep them from having to experience the pain or the emptiness.
There’s a great medical device called a TENS unit. TENS stands for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation. A TENS unit operates from a 9-volt battery. It creates tiny electrical impulses and has pads that are attached to your skin. For example, if you have muscle spasms in your back, a doctor might use a tens unit to block the pain.
The electrodes are taped to the body near where the pain is.
Inside your body there are large nerve fibers and small nerve fibers. Of course these nerves carry pain signals. Well, actually, only the small nerve fibers carry pain. The TENS unit sends tiny electrical impulses down the nerve fibers. It floods the nerve fibers with these harmless impulses. Once the nerves are “filled” with these harmless electrical impulses, the pain signals cannot travel through the nerves.
This is a great analogy for thinking out the spaces in your life. Space might left because of a true loss: A death, a divorce, the loss of a job, or having a child leave home. Similarly, if you have a space that’s filled with pain, you need a mechanism to either stop the pain or at least take your mind off the pain.
And so the coping mechanisms we develop help us to 1) Fill empty space in our lives, and 2) Avoid dealing with the painful spaces in our lives that we’d rather not address. Just as a TENS unit fills the nerves with electrical impulses that keep the pain from getting through, we can use a variety of behaviors to fill our lives with *something* that’s better than the nothing or the pain.
Whether the space is empty (for example, loneliness) or filled with pain, “coping mechanism” are always a short-term solution. Coping mechanism might help you get by today and tomorrow. But longer term, you need to find more permanent solutions.
In the case of pain, the most important goal is to stop the cause of the pain. In terms of emotional pain, the cause is probably YOU and not whatever you think the cause it. Yes, the original cause of the pain was very real. But the ongoing cause of the pain is probably your willingness to continue dwelling on it. Counseling, prayer, and meditation can help you understand the pain and diminish it over time.
But you need to be aware that that process will leave a space where your “old friend” pain used to be.
In the case of loss or loneliness, you will also have an empty space.
No matter how this empty space comes about, you need to find healthy ways to fill that space. But I really encourage you to take some time filling the space. It takes a great deal of self-awareness to leave spaces in your life and not give in to the urge to fill them with “stuff” (physical stuff, activities, hobbies, bad habits, etc.).
Daily quiet time can be an extremely powerful tool to help you with this process. Whether you use it for meditation, prayer, or some other means of being away and clearing your mind, the very fact that you spend time considering your life will help you to work on the spaces in your life.
You may legitimately decide that you want to take up a new hobby, buy some clothes, or do whatever. But with daily contemplation about where your life is going, you will have a much healthier perspective for examining your options.
You may also find that you’ve managed to create a great deal more contentment than you had before.
I’m sure you’ve read this quote before: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates said at his trial for heresy. He was on trial for encouraging his students to challenge accepted beliefs of the time and think for themselves. The sentence was death or Socrates had the option of suggesting an alternative punishment. He could have chosen life in prison or exile, and would likely have avoided death. Socrates believed that these alternatives would rob him of the only thing that made life useful: Examining the world around him and discussing how to make the world a better place. Without his “examined life” there was no point in living. So he suggested that Athens reward him for his service to society. The result, of course, is that they had no alternative and were forced to vote for a punishment of death. Luckily, we don’t have to choose between an examined life and death. The sad thing is, most people avoid leading an examined life. It’s not that they don’t have time or make time. They actively avoid examining their lives.
People who do examine their lives, who think about where they’ve been, how they got here, and where they’re going, are much happier people. No one has all the answers and no one’s life is free from trouble and strife. Yet their are those who have some sense of where they belong in the universe also have a context for understanding how all the elements of their life fit together.
If there are two people, one with a map and one without a map, who has the better chance of reaching their destination? The one with the map, of course.
When you set aside time to examine your life,
You get to choose your destination; You get to set the goals;
You get to determine the path; You get to decide how long it will take;
You get to decide whether you’re on the right path or the wrong path.
In other words, you begin to know your self and to take control of your life. You decide who you want to be and begin to become the person you want to be.
The hardest thing about examining your life is getting started. You have to sit your butt in a chair and get used to not doing anything. Just relax. Focus. Well, you understand . . ..
Last week my daughter Victoria (age 17.9 years) embarked on an adventure. The plan was to spend three days in New York City just seeing the sights, then hop over to England and Scotland for a week. She has two weeks for Spring Break and this is her senior year.
We had plans for the first night and the last night in the UK, but nothing in between. We had Britrail passes and tube passes, so we were set to just go. Our plan was to wake up every day and figure out what to do that day.
In this modern era it is very easy to hop on the internet and find a hotel at a good price on short notice.
Note: This approach takes a certain willingness to believe that you will be okay and that things will work themselves out. I have been cultivating that spirit for some time.
Meditation helps, as does an actual commitment to being a low stress person.
I believe you can always choose how you will respond to your environment. Sometimes it’s easier than others. The more planning you have, the easier it is. But, as the saying goes, sometimes life gives you lemons and you have to make lemonade.
So here’s what happened to our vacation plans.
After three fun days in New York City, we went to the airport to catch an all-night flight to England and arrive at 8:30 AM. But my daughter could not get on the airplane because of a problem with her passport.
Stop. Vacation gone. Plane departing in two hours. Fix it or forget it.
At this point some people would add: Panic.
I was a little panicky, of course. But I decided a long time ago that I’m not the kind of person who blows up, yells and screams, abuses the person behind the counter, etc. I tried to stay calm, gathered the information I could.
It quickly became clear that I could not solve this tonight and we were going to miss the plane. Period. Nothing we could do about that. We could contact the passport office in New York or Connecticut. Quick phone call. NY was a seven day wait. No good. Connecticut might get us in within 8 business hours in an emergency. And might get a new passport within 8 business hours. But that means 1-2 more days in NYC with 1-2 days sitting around a government office, just so we could spend a day flying to England to continue the vacation.
We decided to do England another time. The next question was: Do we go home or reboot the vacation?
Important factor: My daughter only gets one spring break her senior year in high school.
So where do you want to go? The entire East Coast is at your disposal. Or we could rent a car and drive home, seeing the sights. Or take trains and see America. Or whatever.
We decided to catch the next flight to Florida and spend time in the sun. Went online and booked one-way airfare. Cheap, even at the last minute. Thank goodness for the Internet.
Total elapsed time since vacation destroyed: about 60 minutes.
Was I happy about the situation? No. But I had decided to NOT panic, NOT make it a disaster, and NOT focus on what I can’t control.
Yes, it will cost a lot of money. But we can use those Britrail passes another time. And we had almost no other out of pocket expenses except airfare. Called the airline and cancelled. They’re rebating a good portion of what we paid.
And here’s the key: We can’t control what we can’t control!
The mindset of not wasting energy on things you can’t control is a mindset that you can practice. You can create that approach to life.
The mindset of creating lemonade when life gives you lemons is a mindset that you can practice.
You get to choose how you will respond to the world.
I hope that my daughter will love the new vacation we are creating and that she will always take the attitude of slowing down and looking on the positive side when things go wrong.
“Stuff” happens in life. You can make yourself miserable and dive into the well of dispair, or you can pick up the lemons and start making lemonade.
Daily quiet time, meditation, and prayer go a long way to making this possible.
Status Report: We just finished three days in Orlando. We’re working our way through the Disney parks. On Sunday we’re heading to Church (It’s Easter) and then off to Daytona Beach. We got a nice hotel ON the beach for $46/night. Thank goodness for the Internet.
We’ll head home when we had planned. It won’t be the vacation we planned, but it’s been a Great vacation and a great adventure so far.
I finally caught up with posting old newsletters to the Relax Focus Succeed web site.
Check out the RFS Newsletter Page
If you haven’t seen all of the newsletters for the last year, check them out.
Sometimes we let life get ahead of us. We find ourselves responding to the moment instead of keeping track of our own long-term vision about life.
Unfortunately, I have rheumatoid arthritis, an immune disorder in which the body attacks the joints.
Fortunately for me, I just passed my tenth anniversary with this disease. Fall of 2008 represented ten years since the sudden onset of R.A. Why is that fortunate? Because I’m not yet crippled by it. I still walk reasonably well. I’ve had one surgery with no complications.
For R.A., that’s pretty good!
In that ten years I’m grown a few businesses, made a bunch of money, lost a bunch of money, made it back, and recently lost some again.
Life goes on.
In that period I have also added ten years to my marriage. We’re coming up on 18 years. Not bad by any standard.
I’ve also raised a little kid into a big kid. My daughter is 16 and thinks she’s 26. In the big picture, she’s healthy, doing well in school, and staying off drugs.
In that ten years we’ve bought houses and sold houses. My wife has changed jobs. I’ve changed one business around and started another.
We’ve had one dog and one cat pass away in that time. But we’ve added a little dog and two big cats.
Somewhere along the way, we picked up a bunch of new friends, both locally and all over the globe. Ten years ago people feared that computers and the internet would separate people from one another. But human beings are social animals. We found ways to expand our social circles online.
We go through life.
I like to ask audiences to think about the last ten years. Any ten years, really.
Consider: Ten years ago, you probably . . .
- Lived in a different house
- Had a different job
- Had different friends
- Drove a different car
- Enjoyed different hobbies
- Wore different clothes
and . . .
- Your family was different
- Your income was different
- Your daily habits were different
and so forth.
You get the idea: Virtually every aspect of your life will be different ten years from now. All those changes will take place one day at a time, one choice at a time, one tiny thing at a time.
But no matter what happens along the way, remember that YOU get to choose how you’ll make your way. In other words, you can decide whether the next ten years will happen to you or whether you’ll actively participate in how your life evolves.
Working on your life doesn’t have to be a big, difficult job. If you set the long-term goals, and remind yourself of them from time to time, you’ll just tend in the direction you want to go.
Try it. Give it time. Lots of time.
After all, you have the rest of your life to become who you want to be.
One of the elements of a “defining event” in history is that millions of people share some experience in common. Unfortunately, we’re having one of those moments now.
The economic turmoil in the U.S., and around the world, is truly unprecedented. And while it was caused by a very small band of people (a small percentage of borrowers, a small groups of loan agents, a few companies, a few executives), the credit crisis has affected virtually everyone with money.
Whether you’ve lost a few thousand or a few hundred thousand, it can be a depressing situation.
But it’s also a time for some perspective. No matter how bad it is, the economy WILL turn around. House values will return. Stock prices will go up.
When the Dot Com “bubble” burst, many stock portfolios were cut in half. Within five years, we bounced back and went way beyond the levels achieved during the bubble.
It’s hard to be where we are. But economic problems are nothing new. Don’t panic and you’ll be fine.
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The most important thing to focus on in times like this are the people in your life and high value activities.
When the world seems full of all bad news, you have a bit of extra responsibility: You need to be soemone’s ray of sunshine! Seriously. Whether it’s
- your spouse
- your parents,
- your children,
- your co-workers,
- your employees,
- your employers,
- the people at the grocery store,
Everyone you meet today, tomorrow, and the next day has a good reason to be worried about the future.
At the same time, money isn’t everything.
It’s real easy to say that “money isn’t everything” when prosperity abounds and everything seems headed in the right direction. But when things go South, you need to take stock and remind yourself about what’s important.
Central to any human discovery of what’s important is a look at our relationships with other people.
No matter how bad times are, it’s cheap to talk to friends, send Christmas cards, shoot an email to a buddy.
The other important thing to pay attention to is . . .
High Value Activities
I was thinking today about “Christmases past.” When my delightful daughter was three and four and five years old, we used to spend every weekend together. Around Christmas, we’d go look at trees. We’d go to the local lumber yard for this or that. We’d hit Long’s drug store — every weekend. We rarely bought anything at long’s. But Victoria wanted to see the plants, ride the rides, and look at whatever was new.
Those were some serious “high value” activities.
Especially during the holiday season, it’s real easy to capture these high value activities and make some new memories you can keep forever.
Remember your baby’s first Christmas. Remember the look on a face when a special present is unwrapped. Remember playing games with friends and family. Remember getting an email or letter from someone special.
Our lives are filled with human interaction. Positive, negative, and indifferent.
As Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters used to sing: “Accentuate the positive. Eliminate the negative. Latch on to the affirmative. Don’t mess with Mister In-Between.”
Many events happen that are outside your control. But you still get to decide how you’ll react to them and interact with others.
Have a great Christmas and a Wonderful New Year!
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