Sunday, September 28, 2014


My oldest son, Mackenzie, will be starting as a freshman at the University of Chicago on Monday.  We moved him to his dorm last weekend and helped him get settled in.  It's been years since I'd seen him acting so excited, since I'd seen him approaching one person after another after another, striking up conversations so often that after just 2 days everywhere we walked on campus students were already calling him out by name.  All I could think of whenever I saw him interacting with the other students was, "He's going to thrive here!"

I'm still feeling euphoric, still feeling like he's about to start the best years of his life.  It also got me thinking about the relationship between your circumstances and your happiness, between your circumstances and whether or not you thrive.

There has been plenty of research suggesting that perhaps 60-70% of your happiness is NOT a function of your objective circumstances.  According to Positive Psychology researchers such as Sonya Lyubomirsky, we are born with "Happiness Setpoints" that explain much of the difference between those who are perpetually gloomy and those who are perpetually cheery.  Life happens and people may temporarily cheer up or get sad, but they often bounce back to their usual level of happiness.  The remaining 30-40% of our happiness is in our control and is affected by things like our social behavior, our activities, and our thought patterns.

So will my son really thrive in Chicago?  Is this just the temporary excitement of new circumstances?  I don't think so.  Sometimes circumstances change in a way in which their impact is usually fleeting.  Your girlfriend dumps you.  You get a raise at work.  You get a new iPhone.  But other life changes have a more lasting effect because they help you transform your social behavior, your activities, and your thought patterns.  They thus help you transform the 30-40% of your thoughts and actions directly raise or lower your happiness.

For the last 6 years, Mackenzie attended Walnut Hills High School, a school whose outstanding academics attracts students from all over the city.  Unfortunately, this creates a circumstance in which it is hard to spend time with the friends that you make at school.  It's not like when I went to my neighborhood high school and we could all see each other on weeknights or weekends.  At Walnut or any other great city "magnet" school, unless your parents endlessly drive you around, you better hope that many of your best school friends live in walking distance.  With very few exceptions, Mackenzie was not so lucky.  None of us regret his attending such a fine High School.  It's academic strengths are a big reason he was able to get into the prestigious University of Chicago.  But I think I see how the circumstances at Walnut may have held him back a bit.  I also saw last week how drastically different the social opportunities are for him at University of Chicago.  These are his kind of intellectual people, debating politics, philosophy, history--people from all around the world with fascinating backgrounds and cultures.  And they live with him in his dorm or within walking distance at other dorms.  And I feel how he can't believe his good fortune, how thrilled he is to engage with so many people, and I know that this isn't just something new and exciting.  He is going to thrive.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Poke at my Idea PLEASE

I've sometimes read that it's best to develop a plan from the ground up with others so that they "own" the plan as much as you do.  This may be ideal, but sometimes its too slow, especially when there are lots of people involved.  A friend of mine often seems to want to use the "ground up" approach, and I find that his meetings often don't get very far.

I continue to have the most luck when I make a proposal and solicit responses.  I want people to poke at my trial balloon, even if it bursts, because I know that once the proposal changes to incorporate other people's ideas, they start to buy into the plan.  I WANT the proposal to change.

These proposals work best when I continuously project that I want input.  I have to project that I will not be defensive, that I get excited when someone points out a better approach, even if it means I overlooked something critical or obvious.  If I project this right from the start, I think the other people in the room or on the phone can sense that I value their input.  It's safe to tell me whatever they really feel.  They start to engage and, as the dialogue continues, the plan get better and better and better.

Sunday, June 15, 2014


Last week, 15 of us met to brainstorm what changes we needed to have in our organization next year.  The meeting facilitator had us break out into two groups.  On various topics, such as "Tasks", "Rewards", "Structure", "Information Systems", we were supposed to collect feedback from each group.

The facilitator said we should structure our conversations by identifying what we should "Start", "Stop", and "Continue".  That's the normal way we collect feedback in our company:  start-stop-continue.  But I don't like that order.  The emphasis is wrong.  What should we START doing because we've been missing the boat?  What should we STOP doing because we've been screwing up?  The most important question is what should we CONTINUE doing because it's been working well?  What has been our strength?  What should we do more of because it brings out our best performance and results?

I was facilitating one of the two groups, and I insisted on changing the order and the emphasis:  Continue, Start, and Stop.  This seemed to energize people.  We spent our time appreciating the best things they were doing and defining plans to make these things even stronger next year.  And, when we talked about what to START doing, it tended to be things related to what we already have been doing well.  As far as what to STOP?  We often didn't get around to writing anything down, and that was OK with me.

Sunday, June 8, 2014


It's easy to come up with a plan by myself, but hard to "sell it" to everyone else involved in the plan.  One of the themes of Stomp the Elephant in the Office, by Steve Vannoy and Craig Ross, and their company Verus Global, is that people will more easily accept a proposal if it includes their ideas.  But how do you efficiently create a detailed plan with lots of other people?  It often feels like "too many chefs in the kitchen".  Then there are the jokes about camels being horses designed by committee . . . And there is Congress . . .

I've had some luck with floating trial balloons.  Make a proposal, ask for input, and pray for conflict.  I don't want silence.  I want to have my ideas attacked.  I want to hear that I've missed important details or that something I said won't work.  Or that I forgot something important.  Because every criticism is an opportunity to build trust with the group by saying, "Silly me!  You're absolutely right.  How about this revised proposal?"  I've just included somebody else's light bulb.

But trial balloons don't always work.  Sometimes there are situations where too much is at stake for too many people for anyone person to start with, "here's what I think we should do."  I'm in one of those situations at work right now.  We're trying to create our plans for next fiscal year (7/1/14 to 6/30/15) on a project that effects a lot of people at multiple locations around the country.  I don't own the overall project, but I floated a trial balloon for a new way to approach part of the work.  The response was lukewarm.  In hindsight, I think this is a case where the plan needs to be "co-created" by at least a few key players.

Based on another technique recommended by Verus Global, I've decided we need to start by asking key players in the project what worked for them last fiscal year.  The project has made great progress in the last 9 months.  We need to ask the leaders at each manufacturing site and each central corporate team:  "What accomplishments do you feel really good about from last year?  What do you think helped the most in getting there?"  If we do this, and if the plan for the coming year is builds on what people told us worked for them last year, then they will feel that the new plan builds on the things that brought them the most success last year.  They will feel that their ideas were included.

Just as important:  the plan is more likely to work.  Too often, people develop an action plan that doesn't consider "do more of what's already working".  The approach that starts with "what has worked before" sets you up to succeed in the future.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Weekly Writing Habits

Research shows that happiness grows if you write every week about things you are grateful for.  And it grows if you imagine an ideal future, if you write about short term goals, if you reflect on what is most important right now in each area of your life, and if you take the time to think through strategies.

But how can I remember to do ALL this writing and analysis regularly?  How can I keep track of it all?  I can't usually find the time to write about ALL these things every day.  If I have to write about different things on different days, how do I choose what to write about any given day?  And how can I be sure that, over time, I'm thinking through and writing about all these things in a balanced way?

For the last few months, I've had success using Microsoft One Note on my computer to help remember to write about different things each day of the week.  My new system makes it easy to ensure that I usually spend SOME time every week writing in each area.  If I'm super busy one day, I might miss the chance, for example, to write that week about what I'm grateful for.  But I'm unlikely to forget any topic 2 weeks in a row.  The balance is there, and I'm noticing benefits in how I feel and think.

Below is a screen shot from my "Journals" in Microsoft One Note. Sunday is "Sunny" for optimism: I write about best possible outcomes in the near future at work, at home, and in volunteer work.  Monday is "Milestones":  key things to accomplish soon.  Good thing to think about early in a work week.  Tuesday is "Truth":  what truths do I need to confront or communicate that I've resisted?  Wednesday is "Working":  what is working well in different parts of my life that I should do more of to get even more success?  Thursday is "Thanks":  what am I grateful for?  Friday is "Focus":  What is most important right now?  What should I give attention to at the expense of less important goals?  Finally, Saturday is "Strategy":  What are some of the strategies and plans that will move me toward my goals?

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Keep the Needle, Lose the Haystack

It's hard to focus without a trash can.  I'm aiming to clear my mind and focus on one thing at a time.  To succeed, I need to clean out my closets, create empty space on my bookshelves, clear out the garage, and keep my email inbox well under 100 messages at all times.

The book It's All Too Much, by Peter Walsh, makes a strong case for peace of mind through decluttering.  The home or office will be full of distractions unless there is nothing in each room except those things that support the most important things you want to DO in that room.  Everything else needs to go.

When all that's left in each room is what matters to you, it's easier to do the things that matter to you.  When there is no clothing in the closet except what you actually WEAR more than once a year, you can more easily find your favorite pants, shirts, and shoes.  If you decide that you want to draw more often or read more often, you set up spaces where it's easier to find your sketchpads and easier to settle down with a good book and then your life fills with more of the life you want to live.

I think of it as keeping the needle and losing the haystack.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Another Reason to Welcome Conflict

Imagine if our courts were uncomfortable with conflict.  Imagine if--to avoid conflict--they didn't give everyone a chance to present their side of the story, to disagree with each other, to get emotional and confrontational.  Imagine if the judge and jury only heard one from one side--maybe just the prosecutor--before declaring a verdict and a sentence.

Chip and Dan Heath make this powerful example early in their book Decisive-How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work to illustrate one of the key requirements of good decision making:  seek out a variety of viewpoints before making a decision.  They say that the quality of your process for seeking out different points of view is more important than the quality of your THINKING!  How logical you are, how analytical, how clever--none of that matters if you don't make sure that people with different points of view get a chance to speak their minds.

So this is another reason we should be happy when other people disagree with us, when other members of the group have different ideas.  Just as we expect our courts to give all sides a hearing because we know that this increases the odds of a good decision, we should welcome conflict and objections to our points of view at home or at work.