Think of Conversation as Travel

Within every individual, there is an entire world within them, a universe of experiences, knowledge, joy and adversity. Think of conversation as travel, as an exploration. And just like actual travel, a deep conversation is also an adventure, an opening to new ideas and other ways of seeing the world.

“Almost every crisis we’re facing right now is a crisis of belonging.”

—Joe Keohane

I haven’t always talked to strangers, but I try more often now. At our local grocery store, the kind person bagging groceries always asks the same series of questions. “How heavy would you like your bags?” “Would you like your milk in a bag?” “Would you like your cleaning products in the same bag with your produce?” “Would you like your ice cream in a separate bag?”

I understand they are being polite. I usually tell them, “You can decide. You’re an expert. You have much more experience. I trust you.” Then I can go back to asking the clerk about her tattoo. That’s another level of interaction. Try asking a complete stranger about their tattoo. A few years ago I never would have done this. Are you kidding? For many people a tattoo is a sacred icon, a cherished memory, a badge of identity. I wouldn’t dare.

I was wrong to assume people don’t want to talk about their tattoos. A tattoo is a powerful and permanent reminder of an event or expression of identity. In my experience, people light up with enthusiasm if I ask. It’s their daughter’s birthday, their life motto, their favorite quote, an ancient symbol. Tattoos reflect powerful emotions and life choices. I’ve never yet met anyone unwilling to tell me the story of their tattoo.

There’s an expression in social psychology called the Lesser Minds Problem, which is short-hand for the common, impatient and reflexive assumption we make about unknown people. Namely that strangers:

  1. Have less world experience than we do (“They’re so foolish!”)
  2. Make decisions that are less informed because of their lack of experience (“They don’t know what they’re doing!”)
  3. Have a less nuanced and unrefined understanding if the world because of their lack of experience (“They don’t understand how the world works! Idiots!”).

If I have a headache and it is painfully debilitating, and then you tell me you have a headache, I may likely think, “Sure but it’s nothing like this headache!” Our own subjective pain is usually more painful than someone else’s. Which is why almost everyone buys “extra strength” pain medication. We believe our experiences are deeper, more meaningful, more enlightening, than other’s experiences.

In a research paper called “More Human Than You”, Nick Haslam and his colleagues show that we ascribe more human characteristics to ourselves than strangers. When asked to evaluate how curioussympathetic or imaginative a stranger was compared to themselves, participants consistently described themselves as possessing more of these human nature traits. People tend to see themselves as more dimensional, and more mentally complex, than the strangers we encounter in the world.

The obvious secret to finding the humanity in others is to talk to strangers so they’re not so strange any longer. When you interact with people, their humanity becomes undeniable.

With over 60% of younger people (18-25 years old) now experiencing moderate to severe loneliness, we need to recognize that connecting with other humans is an essential human need, like breathing, exercising and thinking. In Joe Keohane’s new book The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World, he offers ideas on how to break the silence, connect with others, and enrich understanding.

Start by finding safe places to start a conversation with a stranger. The “cosmopolitan canopy” is an expression coined by sociologist Elijah Anderson at Yale University to mean safe public and semi-public places where starting a conversation isn’t considered weird or too out of place. Coffee shops, libraries, grocery stores, public squares and markets are all environments where initiating a conversation isn’t too odd or off-putting.

Shared experiences are also good environments. If you’re both watching a baseball team winning, or your local high school team losing, you have a shared point of departure.

Answer greetings honestly. A few years ago my mom died of cancer. Within an hour of hearing the news I went for a walk by myself. A neighbor walked by and asked, “Hi, how are you?” I hesitated and then told her the truth. My mom had just died. My neighbor gave me a hug and we spoke about the fragility of life. It’s the most meaningful brief interaction we have ever had, and yet to this day we always share a kind moment when we see each other in the community. And I believe that kindness can be traced back to that one moment of human honesty.

Perhaps one of the most accessible tips Keohane gives is to break the script. Our script is the pro forma things we say every day to talk, and yet not talk. We say Hello, how are you? as a throwaway comment to fill dead air. We don’t actually intend someone to answer. Try breaking the script and actually answering the question truthfully. “Oh, I’m alright. I didn’t sleep too well but I had a fun yoga class. I’d say I’m about a 6 or 7 right now.

When you answer truthfully, it’s a cue to the other person that this could be interesting. This could go somewhere. It’s playful, audacious, and an invitation to deepen the conversation. Take a chance. Open a conversation with someone new.

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Our company Mindscaling, is busy building powerful online micro-learning experiences to drive the human change that propels your team. You can find our catalog of high-impact courses here. And if you want something more tailored, you can learn about our custom work here.

My book Small Acts of Leadership, is a Washington Post bestseller! You can grab a copy now.

And if you want to learn to apply some of these ideas and be an effective coach for your team, we wrote a course on that too. It’s called Coaching for Managers available over at UDEMY for Business.

It’s OK, You Should Ask. They Will Say Yes.

Welcome back! If you prefer, you can receive this newsletter when first published over here on LinkedIn. This week I show that you can – and should – ask for help, along with a few tips on how to ask from the research of Vanessa Bohns.

Recently my wife and I wanted to visit our son, a first year student at a university about a 7-hour drive away. He had only been there a few weeks, and we thought it would be nice to visit him at school for parent’s weekend, meet his new friends, and take in the fall college scene in New England.

In the end, we didn’t go. We have two dogs who would not have enjoyed 14 hours in a car, and a younger daughter who would need a place to stay for the weekend. She certainly wasn’t interested in a getaway with her parents on a long car ride, just to visit her brother. Yuck.

So what happened? We didn’t ask for help. It would have been easy. When I explained this to some friends, every single person said they would have taken our dogs for the weekend, including our old sweet yellow lab who we couldn’t bear to leave at a dog boarding kennel. Our daughter could have easily spent the night with friends. It would have taken two phone calls. We just didn’t ask.

In general, people hate to ask for help, or ask favors from other people. Our aversion to even interrupting someone else can be so strong, Vanessa Bohn has demonstrated in her research that we don’t like to approach strangers just to give them compliments (“Your sweater looks great on you!”), because we are concerned we might not express ourselves well to others. We believe we might appear awkward, strike the wrong tone, or be misinterpreted. So we say nothing. We ask for nothing.

But we shouldn’t be so worried. People will agree to requests more often than we think, particularly if the request is benign, or well-intentioned.

There’s a guy named Jia Jiang who tested this theory by spending 100 days asking random people for pretty benign, but often unusual requests. He called his experiment Rejection Therapy, and during the experiment, he made many requests of strangers. He went to a high school track and asked a random person to race him (yes), asked a police officer if he could sit in the squad car (yes), asked a Wal-Mart greeter if he could hug her (yes), asked a Subway sandwich maker if he could go behind the counter and make his own sandwich (no), asked a car salesperson if he could test drive an $80k BMW (yes), and even asked if he could give the flight safety announcement on a SouthWest flight (sort of).

The point is that people are more agreeable, and more willing to say Yes to our requests than we think they are. And because of this fact, we should be careful of the requests that we do make, and ensure they are well-intentioned, and designed for positive outcomes.

So, once you’ve figured out what you want to ask for, that comes from a place of good intent, here are a few tips from Vanessa Bohn’s research on how to make a successful ask.

Be direct: A mistake we often make is that we think it will be more polite to hint at the request, or drop clues that the other person is supposed to understand and interpret, to allow them to intuit our request, and volunteer to help. So instead of asking outright, we suggest or hint at it. People don’t always pick up on our hints. Be direct, and plain, in your requests instead.

Don’t overthink the ask: We often think we need to craft the perfect email, with compelling arguments, and carefully selected words, to gain their attention and get someone else to Yes. Actually, you don’t. The most compelling asks are direct, simple, and in-person.

Ask in-person, or at least by phone: It is very difficult for people to say No to someone else in person. Our default response is to agree, mostly because we don’t want to create conflict, adversity or disappoint someone else. And emails are easily ignored.

Don’t water down your request: In a series of studies at Columbia Business School, participants engaged in negotiations who thought they were being too assertive, or too pushy in their requests ( the “line-crossing illusion”), were more often viewed by the other person as being appropriate, and fair, in their ask. So don’t ask for half of what you actually want.

It’s OK. You can, and should, ask for help. Asking strengthens relationships, expands connections, and gives someone else a chance to give. Because giving someone an opportunity to give is a good thing.

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Still trying to figure out what you want? We wrote a 5-minute microlearning course on that. Enjoy!

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Our company Mindscaling, is busy building powerful online micro-learning experiences to drive the human change that propels your team. You can find our catalog of high-impact courses here. And if you want something more tailored, you can learn about our custom work here.

My book Small Acts of Leadership, is a Washington Post bestseller! You can grab a copy now.

And if you want to learn to apply some of these ideas and be an effective coach for your team, we wrote a course on that too. It’s called Coaching for Managers available over at UDEMY for Business.

You Are More Influential Than You Think

Hello there! I have a new-newsletter I’m publishing over at LinkedIn. It’s about how we show up, interact with people, and make a difference every day with small changes. I will post it here on my site, but you can also subscribe over here to receive it on LinkedIn. Enjoy!

Most of us walk through our daily lives thinking no one really pays attention to us. At the sandwich shop, standing in the grocery checkout line, attending the same weekly meeting, or watching the middle school soccer game, we often think we don’t have much influence over people and circumstances. Sometimes we even think we’re invisible.

Yet simply being present and sharing an event, a meal, a checkout line, or a meeting – even if you don’t say anything – will deepen the experience for everyone and make it more memorable.

Showing up can change the outcome of events, influence how other people think, and even change the way you think.

When two violins are placed in a room
if a chord on one violin is struck
the other violin will sound that same note.
Know how powerful you are.
Know you can make music in the people
around you, simply by playing your own strings.
   – Andrea Gibson

The truth is that people are paying attention to you more than you are aware of. But the other strange truth is that people aren’t paying attention to what you think they’re paying attention to. If you are having a bad hair day, wearing the wrong shoes, or worried about your complexion, that’s not what other people are noticing at all. Other people don’t really care about the t-shirt you decided to wear or the zit on your forehead. At least not in the way you think the t-shirt is ridiculous and the zit is enormous.

Studies show that when you are watching a movie with someone else, attending a high school sports event, or just sitting in a meeting with other people, your mere presence with others intensifies the experience and makes it more memorable for everyone.

The reason is that when you show up, others will tune their messages and ideas to you to reflect what they think you want to hear, or try to influence you. When you attend that weekly team meeting, your boss is tuning her message to the group taking into account that you are there and listening. In this way your mere presence is affecting the outcome of the dialogue and events to come. Your presence is affecting what other people say.

We also tend to underestimate how much other people will ruminate on conversations and interactions other people have with us. When we leave a meeting, or a conversation, we often think about the friend, the boss, the colleague that we just met – what they said, how they made us feel, who they are – but we don’t often think that they are likely doing the same thing.

Meanwhile, they are reflecting on their conversation with us. This is something called the thought-gap bias. We tend to underestimate how much others are thinking about us after we leave an interaction. We think about them, but we don’t consider they are doing the same thing.

It happened to me just this morning. I was walking my dog in the forest and bumped into my friend Dominique. We started talking about this idea, and the notion that we have more influence than we believe. She told me a story of walking into a Goodwill store and discovering a beautiful, lightly-used set of Calloway golf clubs that would be perfect for her son.  She chatted with the clerk, asked about her day, and then inquired how much for the golf clubs? The clerk said, “How about six dollars for the set?”

Dominique was stunned. The golf clubs were worth hundreds of dollars. She asked, “Why would you let them go so cheaply?” The clerk said, “Because you are the first person today to be nice to me.”

You have more influence that you think. Use your superpowers for good.

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Our company Mindscaling, is busy building powerful online micro-learning experiences designed to drive the human change that will propel your team. You can find our catalog of high-impact courses here. And if you want something more tailored, you can learn about our custom work here.

My book Small Acts of Leadership, is a Washington Post bestseller! You can grab a copy now.

Why You Should Talk About Your Positive Actions

You know what the bystander effect is. It’s a social phenomena in which people fail to intervene or act on someone else’s behalf because no one else is doing anything. Your boss has a ridiculous idea but you don’t say anything because no one else does.

Imagine, for example, you are sitting in a waiting room with two other people. You glance up to see a young woman hobbling toward the glass door of the waiting room, on crutches with a cast on her foot. She struggles with the door, greets the receptionist with a wince, and is asked to wait her turn to be called. But all the chairs in the waiting room are taken. What do you do? Do you help her with the door? Do you offer her your chair?

This is a real study by David DeSteno and his colleagues at Northeastern University. The other people in the waiting room are actors, including the receptionist and the woman with the cast on her foot. Everyone is watching what you will do, how you will act in that moment.

I like to share this scenario in my presentations, and ask the question: What percentage of study participants do you think stood up, and offered help? People always guess a high number of 60%, 70%, 80%. Everyone has high hopes for humanity. I tell the audience the actual number is 15%. At which point people groan and sigh, and insist they would have done something. Well, maybe.

And you know who Dan Price is. He’s the guy who slashed his personal CEO salary to give at least 70K a year to every employee in his company. He was ridiculed, scorned, and called a fool. Pundits said he would be broke within the year, and his employees “on bread lines.”

That was six years ago. Recently on twitter he posted:

6 years ago today I raised my company’s min wage to $70k. Fox News called me a socialist whose employees would be on bread lines. Since then our revenue tripled, we’re a Harvard Business School case study & our employees had a 10x boom in homes bought. Always invest in people.

  • Dan Price, CEO of Gravity Payments

Dan is a special guy, but he’s not unique. There are lots of people all over the world doing good things right where they are – at the intersection of their skill, passion, and impact. One important difference is that he is talking about his work. He’s vocal about his impact. He didn’t just provide a minimum salary to his employees and quietly watch the results. He has been an outspoken public defender of his actions in the news, and social media.

It’s important to not only do the thing you believe in, it’s important to talk about it. Not in a self-important yay-me humble-brag kind of way, but instead because you understand the power of your actions to be a force for good, and inspire others. That’s how your movement starts. That’s how the tribe is built.

For example, in the United States less than 20% of the population is either doubtful or dismissive about climate change. Over 80% of the population is alarmed, actively concerned, or at least cautiously accepting that it’s happening. In the other words, the overwhelming majority of Americans have some degree of education, concern, and personal experience with climate change. But they still don’t talk about it.

Many of us still don’t talk about it because that small minority can be expressively vocal in dismissing the science. The critics are loud, and we sense their population is bigger than it is. We are uncertain about the views of the person we are speaking with. What if we offend them? What if we say something that contradicts their belief system?

So we say nothing, but maybe we do something – something we understand is a nudge, a gesture in the right direction. We make a personal high impact, low cost, life change to adjust our carbon footprint. We travel less on airplanes, or eat lower on the food chain. Those changes cost nothing. Maybe we even spend a little money on electric vehicles or a home energy audit.

And it’s true that even if you do those things and you get your own family CO2 footprint down from the average 16 tons a year to 12 tons a year, it still won’t make a difference on the planet. Your own personal carbon footprint is less than .0000000003% of the 43 billion tons a year that the world emits. It’s less than a rounding error.

Still reading? This is why it’s important to talk about your actions. Because while what you do personally on climate change might be negligible, talking about it with your family, your neighbors, your community, and demonstrating your commitment through your actions inspires others to act.

I used climate change as an example, but it could be anything you care about that moves the needle toward a kinder, more livable world. It could be bullying, suicide prevention, humanitarian relief, or dog shelters. The point is that if you aren’t a bully, that’s great. But a more powerful gesture is intervening a bullying event you witness, and explaining why. Or adopting a rescue dog, and then communicating with your friends and family why it was important to you.

Our actions are invitations to change. Our actions are demonstrations and assurances to others of how to behave in the face of uncertainty.

Are you stuck? Trying to figure out what you want to do? Or paralyzed by too many choices? Here is a sample lesson from our new series Making It Happen: How to Figure Out What You Want

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Our company Mindscaling, is busy building powerful human and digital learning experiences for companies of all sizes. My book Small Acts of Leadership, is a Washington Post bestseller! You can grab a copy now.

In other news, our son and I bicycled across America with two other dads and their teenagers. We published a new book about it called Chasing Dawn. I co-authored the book with my cycling companion, the artist, photographer, and wonderful human jon holloway. Buy a copy. I’ll sign it and send it to your doorstep.

Get Inspired. Then Inspire Someone Else.

I have a friend who suffers from depression. He says it comes and goes. And when it comes, he describes it as a great dark weight, like a heavy winter blanket suffocating his mind, robbing him of energy, depleting his will. He says his only choice is to fight back.

Fight? I was confused. Fight how? I asked him how does he overcome it? What does he do? Does he say certain things to himself, or do something specific, like maybe go to a particular place with a meaningful view, or a place in his mind?

He says his way out of depression is to seek awe, the kind of awe you feel when you hear an exquisite piece of music, watch a powerful bit of filmmaking, witness someone doing something beyond comprehension, immerse in a painting so arresting it feels otherworldly. He seeks beauty, he seeks the sublime, the transcendent excellence that gives him hope and joy, and inspires him to swim to the surface of the inky haze that’s trying to drown his mind.

According to psychologists Todd M. Thrash and Andrew J. Elliot, the cycle from inspiration to action often starts with openness to experience. In order to be inspired, you have to be willing to place yourself in a novel environment – at the edge of a cliff watching a sunset, before a magnificent painting, in the presence of a master musician – before any inspiration occurs. You have to start by being willing to go to a place of deep experience.

In this place of openness, and experiential adventure, you have the opportunity to recognize beauty or excellence. The next step is action. You have to do something. You have to act on that inspiration.

According to Thrash and Elliot, inspired people possess a heightened belief in their own abilities, elevated self-esteem, and greater optimism for the future. And because inspired people have greater confidence in their capabilities, they persist in their tasks, gain deeper absorption and creativity in their work, and – as a result – are viewed by others as having greater mastery of their work.

If you recognize someone in your life who is wandering, lost, alone, or depressed, you should certainly encourage them to seek help and counseling. But one of the very first things you can do is to take action yourself and facilitate their own inspiration. Take them to a place of beauty, bring them to a museum, take them on a beautiful walk, immerse them in a meaningful conversation. We can all start by creating the circumstances to build inspiration in others.

Here is their research paper describing their study, and here is the Inspiration Scale they created based on their work

Are you stuck? Trying to figure out what you want? Or paralyzed by too many choices? Here is a sample lesson from our new series Making It Happen: How to Figure Out What You Want

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Our company Mindscaling, is busy building powerful human and digital learning experiences for companies of all sizes. My book Small Acts of Leadership, is a Washington Post bestseller! You can grab a copy now.

In other news, our son and I bicycled across America with two other dads and their teenagers. We published a new book about it called Chasing Dawn. I co-authored the book with my cycling companion, the artist, photographer, and wonderful human jon holloway. Buy a copy. I’ll sign it and send it to your doorstep.

Want to Be Happier? Live Longer? It’s Not Kale and Exercise.

“The importance of friendship has been hiding in plain sight.”

– Lydia Denworth, author of Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond

Our daily priorities often go like this: family, work, exercise, chores. And then if there’s any time left over, or cracks in the day, we fit in a moment with a friend to have a coffee, or take a walk together. Our friendships, while important to us, sometimes come lower in our priorities. Rethink that.

Friendship is as important as diet and exercise for our mental and physical health. We often think of friendship as enjoyable, nice, and comforting, but we don’t often think of friendship and social connection as being essential to our ability to thrive. We don’t think of our friendships as critical to boosting our immune system or staving off long-term mental ailments.

Chasing health and longevity, we puree kale smoothies, listen to meditation apps, read Brené Brown, and wake up for morning boot camp classes. But the secret sauce to long term mental and physical health might not just be the planks you do in your workout class, but the friends you see and spend time with.

According to author Lydia Denworth, the reason friendship and social connection has largely been ignored by scientists, until recently, is because it has been hard to define what friendship is. Scientists like to measure things they can define, and pin down. In her research, Denworth interviewed biologists and anthropologists, and found that their agreed definition of friendship is a relationship which is stable, positive and reciprocal.

Friends make time for each other consistently, leave meetings feeling buoyed and uplifted, and have their past interactions to build upon. In this way, the layers of a friendship are built over time such that with each repeated contact we get to reinforce past interactions, and then add new stories, ideas and values to edify one another.

In the 1950s, John Bowlby theorized the idea of maternal imprinting and the power of child contact and connection for their psychological health and growth. He was ridiculed and stopped attending professional conferences. The prevailing parenting philosophy at the time was that love and affection to children would weaken them. Mothers were advised not to pick up their kids. They were told it would soften and spoil them.

His work led to inquiry in the 1970s, to what happens after those first formative years, when we learn trust, loyalty, and cooperation, the building blocks of friendship. In this same era researchers started studying the intersection between the strength of social networks and overall health.

Fast-forward to today, Denworth points out that we now understand friendships are absolutely critical to our overall health and well-being. She expresses some concern that, as parents, we might over emphasize academic achievement or athletic performance, when, in fact, what really matters to the health of our children is the strength, and reciprocity, of their friendships.

Millennials today state that their #1 long-term goal is more money and less debt. Yet we know the answer to the question of what gives us long term health, prosperity and personal happiness is readily available. The Harvard Study of Adult Development has tracked the life of 724 men since 1938 – their careers, their marriage choices, their health, their wealth and achievements (or lack of), and importantly, how they self-describe their happiness and fulfillment.

For over 75 years, both Harvard graduates, and impoverished children from the inner city of Boston who did not have the privilege and opportunity of the Harvard participants, participated in this life-long study. According to Robert Waldinger, currently the lead researcher on the project, the results are clear.

People who are more socially connected to friends, to family, and to community, are happier, physically healthier, and live longer than people who are less well-connected. Period.

– Robert Waldinger, Harvard Medical School

In the 40s and 50s of our lives we tend to lean in to work, chase promotions, maximize our retirement contributions, fret over our kids’ college applications, and worry about our parenting skills. Yet the best predictor of how healthy and happy we are in our 80s is the strength of our social network in our 50s.

Call a friend. Schedule time with them. Then load the dishwasher.

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Our company Mindscaling, is busy building powerful human and digital learning experiences for companies of all sizes. My book Small Acts of Leadership, is a Washington Post bestseller! You can grab a copy now.

In other news, our son and I bicycled across America with two other dads and their teenagers. We published a new book about it called Chasing Dawn. I co-authored the book with my cycling companion, the artist, photographer, and wonderful human jon holloway. Buy a copy. I’ll sign it and send it to your doorstep.

Are “Should” Statements Ruining Your Life?

This kind of thinking will destroy your motivation, and make you less likely to actually do these things.

  • “I should work out more often.”
  • “I should figure out how to meditate.”
  • “I should hug my kids more.”
  • “I should make more healthy dinners.”

The last time I posted something here was May 4, 2020. It was fairly early in the pandemic. Those were the days of warily touching doorknobs and railings, then saturating your hands in disinfectant until they were red and dry, the days of wondering if COVID was somehow lurking on our groceries or on our mail. You never know.

Back then I wrote about Victor Frankl and Michael J. Fox, and themes of hope and resilience, and spiritual growth through crisis and adversity. And then I went silent. I read expert interviews about the virus, the distant hope of vaccines, the increasing death tolls. I made meals for my family. I focused on my growing company. I went for bike rides. I turned off the news.

I also expended energy thinking I really should write something publicly. I should keeping connecting through this blog. What I didn’t know is that berating myself with shoulds is demotivating energy. It’s a cognitive distortion that only compounds the external pressures that make us anxious. So on top of worrying that humans are under attack by a novel virus, our democracy is in peril, and our planet is suffering catastrophic climate change, I decided to worry about all the things I should be doing, but aren’t doing. It’s not useful energy.

It’s no surprise that stress is up across the board – from teens to parents – and includes professionals from pretty much every industry segment. Anxiety, stress, substance abuse, suicidal ideation are all up.

Now, people are suffering from something experts are calling COVID Anxiety Syndrome, a condition in which people, who have been vaccinated, still won’t venture out into the world. Post-pandemic stress disorder is real.

And if, on top of all that, we start to layer in I should or I ought to self-talk, it can paralyze us. According to behavioral therapists, there are straightforward solutions to help us change our language, change the way we think, and move toward meaningful action.

Should statements typically only make you feel more hopeless about your situation. Should self-talk reinforces your sense of procrastination and lack of agency. Stop it. Become aware of your shoulds, oughts, and musts and try to replace them with thoughts about what you CAN and WILL do.

Reframe your should statements. Turn I should into I want to, or I can, or I would like to. The expression I should conveys to your brain something that you feel is an obligation you aren’t living up to – an unfulfilled promise to yourself or someone else. I want to and I can are more powerful statements of intention. They convey power, agency, and choice.

Finally, be aware of others who use similar burdening language. When someone says to you, You ought to or You should… they are probably talking about themselves anyway. Let it go.

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Our company Mindscaling, is busy building powerful human and digital learning experiences for companies of all sizes. My book Small Acts of Leadership, is a Washington Post bestseller! You can grab a copy now.

In other news, our son and I bicycled across America with two other dads and their teenagers. We published a new book about it called Chasing Dawn. I co-authored the book with my cycling companion, the artist, photographer, and wonderful human jon holloway. Buy a copy. I’ll sign it and send it to your doorstep.

Yes, Posttraumatic Growth is a Real Thing

In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.
—Viktor Frankl

Most people say they don’t like adversity. If you ask, many of us would say that this Covid19 situation, right now, sucks. And the last thing we want to hear is, “You’ll grow from this.” Please. Don’t start with that.

Yet history is littered with stories of triumph and growth through adversity. Van Gogh was tortured with madness. Beethoven went deaf. Roosevelt suffered from polio and paralysis. Victor Frankl was imprisoned in Auschwitz, his family murdered by Nazis. More recently I was reminded of Michael J. Fox, who has advanced Parkinson’s Disease, and yet now his foundation has become the largest donor to Parkinson’s research – over $650 million thus far. Frida Kahlo, who suffered through polio, a near death accident, and chronic unrelenting pain, and yet found solace in her art. Our world religions of Hindu, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity all have stories of the transformative power of suffering.

But what’s the path to enlightenment through crisis and trauma? Is it as simple as waking up one day in the middle of a crisis and just creating art and meaning? Well no, it’s not that simple. But there is a path we can follow.

Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun have done years of research on how people deal with traumatic events and crises in their lives, and how some people successfully grow and thrive, while others merely cope, and some fold under the weight of psychic trauma.

They define “posttraumatic growth” as an increased appreciation for life, more meaningful relationships with family, friends and community, positive shifting of priorities, and a more meaningful spiritual life. They also point out that growth isn’t a binary choice, it’s a journey. And like any journey there are ups and downs.

Common initial reactions to cancer, death, job loss, divorce, or similar seismic events include profound sadness, yearning for the deceased, longing for a life denied, loss of self identity, guilt, anger, irritability and distraction. In a minority of cases, significant trauma and life crisis can trigger serious mental instability.

Spiritual and emotional growth isn’t a de facto result of crisis, of course. It’s the result of intentional choices about how we respond to traumatic events. The way we frame the next sequence of choices and personal narrative matters a great deal in how we can emerge from trauma stronger and more resilient.

Acknowledge your point of departure.
We all have our own starting point prior to a traumatic event, our own personal status quo. When a crisis strikes it disrupts our personal narrative, it challenges our belief system about what is normal, what is fair, what is real and consistent in our world. When crisis strikes it creates own emotional distress, curtails our goals, and interrupts our normal trajectory. It’s important to acknowledge that you won’t go on your vacation to Belize, or see your son’s graduation ceremony from high school. Mourn that loss, but don’t dwell on it.

Examine your self-talk.
In Tedeschi and Calhoun’s model, our next immediate phase is rumination. We muse internally about the event, and the way in which we talk to ourselves matters a great deal. Do we curse the gods, and tell ourselves we deserve it? Or do we chalk it up to random misfortune, and uncaring powers beyond our control. Often we internalize events in the form of keeping a journal, or praying, or meditating. It’s important to avoid blame. Blame simply exacerbates feelings of being a victim.

Be aware of how you share your story to others.
Once we have built our own personal narrative of the event, we try these stories out on others. We test these narratives with our partners, our friends, and family. We lean on our sociocultural muses. We revisit our trusted voices in the news, in social media, to reinforce our emerging storyline. The language you use with others is contagious. If you focus on complaints and what you have lost, you will reinforce the same feelings in others. Focus on the positive.

In these early phases of rumination, self-talk, and then sharing these developing narratives with others, it’s critically important to use words that emphasis self-compassion (“it’s not my fault”), it’s temporal (“this isn’t going to last forever”), and to emphasize what you can do to contribute to the emotional stability of those around you (“I think I’ll help John with his homework tonight”).

Build meaning and purpose through giving.
In study after study, helping others and contributing to your community goes much farther in building purpose and meaning than merely the pursuit of happiness. Even the simple act of expressing gratitude to someone is itself and act of giving because you celebrating someone else and lifting them up.

If you’re interested in tracking your own traumatic growth progress through this strange dystopian moment in time, Tedeschi and Calhoun have created this simple scorecard to help us examine our growth.

Our company Mindscaling is giving away this course we created on Resiliency with Jen Shirkani. We hope you are safe, healthy and sane in this strange time. And we hope this will help.

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Our company Mindscaling, is busy building powerful human and digital learning experiences for companies of all sizes. My new book Small Acts of Leadership, is a Washington Post bestseller! You can grab a copy now.

Before the pandemic, in a more free world, our son and I bicycled across America with two other dads and their teenagers. We published a new book about it called Chasing Dawn. I co-authored the book with my cycling companion, the artist, photographer, and wonderful human jon holloway. If you need a good escape at the moment, grab a copy. I’ll sign it and send it to your doorstep.

Keep up the Fight

Remember on March 13, the scenes of Italians singing together from their balconies while on lockdown. Throughout the city graffiti everywhere proclaimed “andrà tutto bene” (everything will be alright). Six weeks earlier, on January 28 throughout Wuhan citizens leaned out of their apartment buildings and chanted together “jiāyóu” (keep up the fight).

Remember 2012 Hurricane Sandy, when New York was under water. On October 30, Mayer Corey Booker tweeted “Police have reported ZERO looting or crimes of opportunity in Newark. And ceaseless reports of acts of kindness abound everywhere. #Gratitude.”

Remember immediately in the wake of 9/11 in New York City, hundreds of people spontaneously formed the “Bucket Brigade” to remove debris in search of remains.

At the time Hurricane Katrina hit the gulf coast it was the deadliest storm to hit New Orleans since 1900. Although in the wake of the storm there were indeed stories of looting, rioting, hoarding, and even violence, a powerful study conducted in 2008 revealed that acts of prosocial generosity and caring far outweighed the negative behaviors. Conditions were especially dire for the 700,000 displaced survivors because only 26 days later Hurricane Rita hit the same geographic area stalling rescue and relief efforts.

Yet even in that incredibly adverse environment, tales of human camaraderie, altruism, generosity and care are numerous. Read this harrowing personal account: “There is nothing that I had ever witnessed in the United States to which I could compare the scene outside the New Orleans Convention Center.”

Or read this perspective from a medical worker on the front lines: “Our group received an offer of special rescue, which we did not accept until each and every one of our patients had been evacuated.”

It goes on and on. And if you’re reading this and thinking, “Yes that’s heroic and comforting but what about the looting, the hostility, the selfishness, the scarcity thinking…” I say the more good we see in the world, the more good we create in the world. The more love, charity, and kindness you witness in your community, the more you will create it yourself.

Got it? And now a word about blind optimism, and irrational exuberance.

U.S. Navy Admiral James Stockdale was captured by the Vietnamese, tortured over twenty times, and imprisoned for eight years during the Vietnam War. During that time he observed that those POWs with a deep sense of pessimism and dread would lose hope, succumb to their conditions, and eventually die. But he also observed those who were wildly optimistic eventually became overwhelmed with despair, and false hope.

“You must never confuse the faith that you will prevail in the end… with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be.”
– Admiral James Stockdale

According to Stockdale, “The wildly optimistic were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come go, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

Those who persevere in the face of daunting obstacles are those who have a sense of realistic idealism. They have the ability to visualize and identify an ideal outcome, yet also an ability to realistically face challenges, including the unexpected challenges which will surely arise.

Another trait of those who possess realistic optimism is they lift other people up. During the depths of despair during their incarceration, James Stockdale used an alphabetic communication code by tapping on the walls of the prison cells. In this way the prisoners were able to communicate and not feel completely isolated in captivity.

Our world view is not simply a fixed condition of our situation. We have the power to choose our reaction to this current dystopian madness, and also to decide whether or not we have the ability to make a difference.

Things are sideways, yet remember that this pandemic is temporary. It won’t last forever, it’s not someone’s fault and you can make a difference in someone’s life each and every day simply in how you show up with discipline and faith that we will endure and see each other through.

  • Our company Mindscaling created a course on resilience with the fabulous Jen Shirkani. Message me and I’ll send access to the course. No charge of course. I just hope it helps us work through this.
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    Our company Mindscaling, is busy building powerful human and digital learning experiences for companies of all sizes. My new book Small Acts of Leadership, is a Washington Post bestseller! You can grab a copy now. Have a meeting coming up? I love to work with groups large and small. Let’s talk.

    In other news, our son and I bicycled across America with two other dads and their teenagers. We published a new book about it called Chasing Dawn. I co-authored the book with my cycling companion, the artist, photographer, and wonderful human jon holloway. Buy a copy. I’ll sign it and send it to your doorstep.

    A Little Mindfulness Goes a Long Way

    You walk in for your appointment.

    You greet the receptionist. She says, “Just have a seat. We’ll call you when we’re ready.” You turn around and there are three chairs, two of them already occupied by people reading a magazine or looking at their phone. You take the empty seat and wait.

    A few minutes later a woman on crutches, with a clunky orthopedic boot on, comes hobbling down the corridor toward the waiting room. She struggles with the door, enters, looks around, and seeing no empty chairs, she slumps against the wall, wincing in pain.

    What do you do? Do you stand up and hold the door for her? Do you offer her your seat? Of course you do, right? That’s what any conscientious and thoughtful person would do. In fact, when David DeSteno and his researchers asked people what they would do in that circumstance, the overwhelming majority said they would stand and offer their seat.

    Then they staged the experiment, with an actor on crutches and actors in the other chairs instructed to ignore the injured woman. Initially, they picked 19 people to go through the experiment. The participants thought they were in a room waiting for the experiment to begin, but the waiting room was the experiment. Of those 19 people, only 3 actually stood and offered to help. Three. That’s 16%. The researchers were so surprised they repeated the study and got the same results.

    I know. It’s appalling. But in his research, DeSteno admits that they stacked the deck a little. Since the other actors were told to ignore the person on crutches, they had set up a classic bystander effect in which it’s hard to act against the behavior of those around them.

    But still, 16%? That’s pretty disappointing. Then the researchers added just one change to the experiment. The next group of research participants were asked to engage in eight weeks of meditation training before they entered the waiting room. For eight weeks participants met regularly with Buddhist master Lama Willa Miller who offered instruction and guidance in meditation practice. Lama Miller also provided audio recordings for participants to practice at home.

    That’s it. That’s the only difference. All participants had no prior meditation experience at all. Half of the participants meditated regularly for eights weeks. The other half did not. The results? Fifty percent (50%) of the group that meditated acknowledged the woman’s distress, stood up, engaged her in conversation, helped her with the door, and offered her their chair.

    DeSteno has been researching the impact of regular mindfulness practice on human behavior for years, and what he has discovered is that simple meditation and mindfulness leads consistently to empathy and compassion for others. That compassion for others leads to a sense of self-control, willingness, and ability to make a difference to others.

    In short, then, our research suggests that mindfulness’s most profound benefit may not be the one that’s most often touted—adapting to a stressful, competitive, even unkind 24/7 world. Instead, meditation might fundamentally alter how we treat those around us.
    – David DeSteno, Ph.D.

    Don’t be put off or intimidated by the idea of meditation. You don’t have to get into the lotus position, invoke a deity, and unlock your third eye chakra. The basic ingredients of meditation are simple and readily available – even in the midst of a crazy day. You need only a quiet place, focused attention, relaxed breathing, a comfortable position, and an open attitude.

    Grab a copy of David DeSteno’s book here. It’s packed with research and ideas on the power of leveraging emotion – not just sheer willpower – to live a more connected and fulfilling life.

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    Our company Mindscaling, is busy building powerful human and digital learning experiences for companies of all sizes. My new book Small Acts of Leadership, is a Washington Post bestseller! You can grab a copy now. Have a meeting coming up? I love to work with groups large and small. Let’s talk.

    In other news, our son and I bicycled across America with two other dads and their teenagers. We published a new book about it called Chasing Dawn. I co-authored the book with my cycling companion, the artist, photographer, and wonderful human jon holloway. Buy a copy. I’ll sign it and send it to your doorstep.