Sunday, January 3, 2016

Ask and you shall . . .

If I had to summarize in just a few words the classic book on networking, Never Eat Alone, by Keith Ferrazzi, I would say, "Offer help and ask for help."  Both are hard to do for many people, including me.  I often limit the help I offer others because I don't want to miss my own commitments and priorities.  I also limit how often I ask for help because asking for help sometimes feels like I'm trying to get others to do my work.  It feels like I'm being lazy or taking a shortcut.

But my reluctance disappears when dealing with family.  My best "networking" successes have involved my kids.  I can think of three good networking successes involving my oldest son, Mackenzie, including one that happened this week.

  1. When Mackenzie was in high school, he thought he wanted to become a college football scout for the NFL.  I wanted him to find out more about potential careers in sports.  By reaching out to friends, I was able to get him a conference call with a scout for the Buffalo Bills, a conference call with the former Director of Football Operations for the Cincinnati Bengals, and almost got him conference calls with a sports radio announcer at WLW with ESPN commentator Michael Wilbon.
  2. When Mackenzie was looking for a summer internship after his freshman year in college, I wrote to several people in City Hall and got him an interview that led to an internship with Vice Mayor David Mann.
  3. And, three days ago, after Mackenzie decided to apply for the Criminal Law Internship Program (CLIP) in Washington D.C., I contacted every lawyer I know asking for opinions about the program.  One of my friends put me in touch with two attorneys who had several years of experience with the CLIP program.  One of these former CLIP attorneys lives just 3 blocks away from me!  I'm looking forward to finding out the plusses and minuses of this program and passing this on to Mackenzie.  
If only I could learn to be as brazen about asking for help for other things as I am about asking for help for my son!  As long as I'm generous to others in return, my hunch is that the power of networking would live up to all the hype.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Don't be good. Be "good for . . .".

So why did I treat myself to cheesecake the other day after I used the treadmill?  I consumed twice as many calories in that cheesecake as I had burned off on the machine.  The book The Willpower Instinct, by Kelly McGonigal, makes it clear that we often give ourselves "license to sin" after we perceive ourselves to have done good.  She cites many studies in which test subjects were far more likely to lie or cheat or indulge themselves after they do something they perceive as good behavior.

Does this mean I'm doomed?  If I make good choices about exercise, about diet, about helping my family or my community, will I necessarily follow these good choices with bad ones that cancel out whatever I've accomplished?

Not necessarily.  McGonigal says that the key is to stop moralizing your actions.  Get on the treadmill, but stop kidding yourself that you are being "good".  A treadmill is not a path to sainthood.

Most of our daily decisions are neither sinful nor heroic.  They are just either harmful or beneficial.  We choose between a donut and a salad more often than we choose between stealing and charity.  For almost every good choice you make, instead of  thinking that you are "doing good", reflect on what your behavior is "good for".  Think about the benefits to your health, you happiness, your loved ones, society, the environment, or whatever.  This keeps your attention on your goals and values.  It engages and strengthens your prefrontal cortex--the part of your brain that reasons, plans, sets goals, and tracks progress against those goals.

If, instead, you focus on the morality of your good choices, you turn all your attention toward your internal battle between good and evil.  When you think of exercise as being "good", you are emphasizing that part of you would rather sit on the couch and eat cookies.  When you commend yourself for having just one or two drinks in an evening, you are implying that part of you wanted to polish off a six-pack.  When you pat yourself on the back for eating a salad, you are implying that part of you wanted to eat Twinkies.  Your attention turns to your worst impulses and your struggles to overcome those impulses.  Putting all this attention on inner conflict almost guarantees that, after the "good" in you has a small success, you will feel compelled to give the "bad" in you a chance to even the score.

Monday, October 5, 2015

The Cheesecake and the Treadmill

Why did I have to start reading a book on willpower now?  Why now?

So I'm reading and blogging about the book The Willpower Instinct, by Kelly McGonigal, and I'm feeling pretty psyched about how I'm suddenly going to eat right, drink in moderation, and exercise like an Olympian.  I just started a business trip in Georgia today.  I use Google Maps to find the fitness room of a hotel I've stayed at 100 times.  I spend 20 minutes on the treadmill, lift a few weights, and I'm feeling unstoppable.  I have dinner and then the waitress says, "Nobody's ordered dessert tonight.  You can't let that happen to me!  You've got to get the chocolate lava cake, the key lime pie, or the cheesecake!"  I order the cheesecake.

Delicious.  But then I go to my room and open The Willpower Instinct,  I'm just starting the chapter "License to Sin".  It's all about how, when we do something we think is good, we give ourselves permission to be bad.  Oops.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Will-power and Won't-power

In her book The Willpower Instinct, Kelly McGonigal describes three aspects of willpower:  willpower, won'tpower, and wantpower.  Willpower involves motivation to DO something, such as get off the couch and exercise.  Won'tpower is the motivation to NOT DO something, such as not having another drink or a cookie.  Wantpower is the motivation to move toward long term goals.  I like McGonigal's threefold view of willpower because it seems that the strategies needed to motivate myself are totally different depending on whether I'm trying to resist ice cream, get on a treadmill, or develop a long term savings plan.

Early in the book, McGonigal describes research relating willpower and meditation.  Studies show that even relatively new meditators gain measurable improvements in attention, self control, self awareness, and even increased gray matter in areas of the brain related to self awareness and self control.  Why?  McGonigal thinks it is because meditation exercises both willpower and won'tpower.

She describes what happens if you sit cross legged and try to focus on your breathing.  Your mind wanders, and you bring it back to the breath.  Wanders again and again and again, dozens of times in a 20 minute session.  Each time you notice this, you redirect your attention to your breath.  You have now exercised willpower several dozen times in 20 minutes.  Being "bad" at meditation might even make it a more effective practice for building willpower.  Meditation also builds won'tpower.  This doesn't work as well if you try to meditate in an Easy Boy recliner.  But if you try to sit still, cross legged, back straight, and head held high, you will probably feel many urges to scratch, fidget, stiffen up, or slouch.  If you resist all these urges and maintain a relaxed, erect posture, the you exercise your won'tpower.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Getting a Gratitude Attitude

Psychologists agree that, if you want to be happier in life, it helps to cultivate a feeling of gratitude. For example, see this video regarding Sony Lyubormirsky's research into the impact on happiness of writing in gratitude journals: Lyubormirsky on You Tube.  One of the surprising things about this research is that writing down what you are grateful for has a much bigger impact on happiness for most people if you only do it once per week versus the group that did it 3 times per week or the control group that didn't do it at all.  Why?  The professor concludes that if you do it too often, it becomes a chore.  You don't feel energized.  

Imagine if there was another way to cultivate gratitude, a method that you could use every day and always feel deep emotional appreciation for the blessings you are counting.  How to do this?  One option is to apply the methods of the ancient Stoics--the Greek and Roman philosophers whose philosophy thrived between 350 BC and 200 AD (Stoicism-Wikipedia).   I recently read "A Guide to the Good Life (the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy)", by William Irvine.  The author is a professor at Wright State University who is convinced that many of the practices of the Stoics can be applied to modern life.  He feels that the common view of Stoics as serious and unemotional is wrong and that they actually had practical advice on how to cultivate deep appreciation every day for what you have.  In other words, the Stoics developed methods to cultivate a gratitude attitude.

Their key method for this is now described as "negative visualization".  Here is a link describing it: negative visualization.  The idea is to recognize that you never know when you could lose something around you that you cherish.  There are no guarantees that your dog will be here tomorrow, or your house, or your family, or your job, or the nice weather outside, or your health, or your life.  The idea isn't to dwell on these thoughts morbidly, just to quickly acknowledge the fact that these things are not necessarily permanent.  This sounds depressing, but the result--according to the Stoics--is great joy.  A few minutes a day of this practice, applied to a few things around you, can cause you to take nothing for granted.  You cherish what could perish, and when you recognize the reality of change and impermanence, you are more likely to care deeply about what you already have.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Some or Nothing

Psychologists describe various common thinking errors--thoughts that cause us to fall short of what we would otherwise accomplish or enjoy.  One of the most common of these, and maybe the biggest faulty thinking error that I suffer from, is "all or nothing thinking".

"Either this blog post has to be perfect or it's not worth writing."  Is this the thought that has led me to not write for 4 months in this blog?  Yes, I've been traveling far more on business than ever.  But I feel bad when I don't blog for months.

When I succumb to "all or nothing" thinking, I tend to go overboard and neglect my family if I pursue my personal interests.  That is not OK.  But could I have it all if I was willing to be satisfied with less?  If I change from "all or nothing" to "some or nothing", can I do everything my family needs AND satisfy my interests?

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Getting Ready to Serve

Great tennis players go through highly personal rituals to help them concentrate before they serve.  Baseball players do the same before they step up to the plate to face the pitcher.  Competitors in all sports use routines to center themselves.  Would we all benefit from similar routines before we step up to the plate in our homes and our offices?

I listened to a great podcast from "".  The episode for "Instant Confidence" takes you through a long hypnosis intended to create a ritual that--unlike bouncing a tennis ball or kissing a baseball bat--is something you can do in any environment without getting noticed.  You choose your ritual early in the podcast.  The ritual is called an "anchor".  The anchor includes your choice of a subtle hand gesture, an image of someone--a hero--who you feel epitomizes confidence, and a word you say to yourself such as "strong" or the name of your hero.  Then you are guided in the podcast to recall a time in your life in which you felt totally in command of the situation, felt you were on a roll, at your best.  You then "fire your anchor"--your hand gesture, image, and the word you say to yourself.  You are guided to repeat this several more times during the hypnosis session, recalling different wonderful times in your life when you felt in total control.  At the end of the session, you now have a tool you can use in any situation to generate a sense of confidence and ease.

I have been using this technique for a week now and find it so simple yet so powerful.  In meetings, at home, in almost any situation, if I notice some stress I slyly, secretly "fire my anchor" and I always seem to feel more in command of the situation.