To Avoid Stress, Stop Screwing Up

Willpower

Willpower

I had a “What the heck?” moment recently when reading a book on willpower.  I came across the line, “The best way to reduce stress in your life is to stop screwing up.”  As my children might say, “Well, duh…”  Of course, if we didn’t get ourselves into stressful situations, we could reduce stress.

But if you’ll bear with me for a moment, I think authors Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney have a good point.  They were arguing that we should think about ways to set up our lives so that we have a realistic chance to succeed.  “Successful people don’t use their willpower as a last-ditch defense to stop themselves from disaster, at least not as a regular strategy.”

The entire book is built around the premise that all of us—even the most successful—have a limited amount of willpower to expend every day and that we use the same resource for many different things. So it is important to think about how we can use our willpower to set ourselves up for success.

“Each day may start off with your stock of willpower fresh and renewed, at least if you’ve had a good night’s sleep and a healthy breakfast.  But then all day things chip and nibble away at it….Consider some of the things that happen in a typical day.  You pull yourself out of bed even though your body wants more sleep.  You put up with traffic frustrations.  You hold your tongue when your boss or spouse angers you or when a store clerk says ‘Just one second’ and then takes six minutes to get back to you.  You try to maintain an interested, alert expression on your face while a colleague drones on during a boring meeting.  You postpone going to the bathroom.  You make yourself take the first steps on a difficult project.  You want to eat all the French fries on your lunch plate but you leave half of them there, or (after negotiating with yourself) almost half.  You push yourself to go jogging, and while you jog you make yourself keep running until you finish your workout.  The willpower you expended on each of these unrelated events depletes how much you have left for the others.”

If I put things off or set goals for myself that are unrealistic, pushing me into situations where I have to expend my stock of willpower, that’s not a recipe for success.  Instead, I’ve increased my level of stress.  However, Dutch researchers have shown that people with good self-control “mainly use it not for rescue in emergencies but rather to develop effective habits and routines in school and at work.”  People with good self-control generally have less stress.

“They use their self-control not to get through crises but to avoid them.  They give themselves enough time to finish a project; they take the car to the shop before it breaks down; they stay away from all-you-can-eat buffets.  They play offense instead of defense.” (emphasis added)

Consider how you would (re)structure your life to avoid putting yourself in situations where self-control is an emergency rescue reaction.  What changes would be necessary for you to play offense instead of defense?

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Perseverance and Passion

Grit

“Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance” by Angela Duckworth

If you are like me, you may have been told “You know, you’re no genius” at some point in your life.  During her childhood, Angela Duckworth heard that phrase over and over again from her father.  Years later when she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship—often called the “genius grant”—she was able to savor the irony of being told that she wasn’t smart enough, and yet being recognized on an international stage for work that was cutting-edge and transformational in the field of psychology.  Duckworth was compassionate enough not to lord this over her father.  But she did write a book based on her studies which makes the case that for those who have a calling, who challenge themselves every day, who get back up when they are knocked down, perseverance and passion matter more than talent.

Grit:  The Power of Perseverance and Passion is the 2016 book that resulted from Duckworth’s life and studies.  The fundamental insight that guides her research is “Our potential is one thing.  What we do with it is quite another.”  Early in the book she recounts the time she left a job at the high-powered consulting firm McKinsey to teach seventh grade math in the inner city.  There Duckworth came to see that we are all distracted by talent.  She was naturally attracted to those students who were “quick studies” and seemed to have the intellect and skills to succeed.  But as marking periods went by, these were not necessarily the successful students.  Duckworth became interested not in what made people smart, but what was needed to be successful in life.

What she found is that people who are successful over time have a passion.  A calling.  It may take time for that passion to evolve, and they may explore several pathways before landing on the one that sticks.  But having an inner compass, the “thing that takes you some time to build, tinker with, and finally get right, and that then guides you on your long and winding road to where, ultimately, you want to be” is critical to success.  And then you have to persevere, in the face of the inevitable failures, to reach your goals.  Duckworth notes:  “Enthusiasm is common.  Endurance is rare.”

There’s a lot to unpack in Duckworth’s book, including how experts practice differently from others, with a deliberative focus.  They make it a habit, with daily rituals.  Or how pessimists have permanent and pervasive explanations for adversity that “turn minor complications into major catastrophes.”  Hope and modeling a growth mindset, it turns out, are keys to perseverance.  Duckworth looks at how to grow grit from the inside out, ways to build an organizational culture that focuses on perseverance and passion, and parenting for grit.

Skyscape at Villa Panza

What is your calling?

Basketball coaching legend John Wooden captured the need for both perseverance and passion when he said:  “Success is never final; failure is never fatal. It’s courage that counts.”  One of my favorite stories in the book is from another sports coach who, as a philosophy and English major, has a special appreciation for the power of words.  Each year he has his team memorize three different literary quotes, handpicked to communicate a different core value.  The first team value is “We don’t whine.”  The corresponding quote, courtesy of playwright George Bernard Shaw:

“The true joy in life is to be a force of fortune instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”

Duckworth challenges us to cultivate our interests.  Develop a habit of daily challenge-exceeding-skill practice.  Connect our work to a purpose beyond ourselves. And learn to hope when all seems lost.

That seems like smart—perhaps even genius-like—advice to me.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

An Education in the Obvious

In the midst of one of the most turbulent weeks in our recent civic life, I attended the play Lincolnesque last Saturday at Washington’s Keegan Theatre.  First released in 2009, this new production couldn’t have come at a better time.  Here’s the synopsis:

“Leo has more on his plate than he can handle. He is a speechwriter for an endangered mediocre Congressman, in the final month before a do-or-die mid-term election. His new boss Carla is a dominating message maven who has been brought in from the corporate world to try and save the campaign. And his brother Francis is a psychiatric outpatient recently released from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, despite having a powerful delusion that he is Abraham Lincoln. Desperate for inspiration, Leo turns to Francis for help writing “Lincolnesque” speeches, hoping that Lincoln’s transformative oratory will revive his boss’s career.”

Playwright John Strand uses humor and plot twists to bring Leo and Carla to the point of stealing Francis’ “Lincolnesque” citations for the final campaign speech that puts the Congressman over the top.  The power of idealism (or E&I as Francis calls it, for Ethics and Integrity) is clear, even when the staff take the low road and end up, as one reviewer noted, in the “inevitable aftermath.”

I’ve been thinking a great deal about our political conversation these past few weeks and how it affects my work and life.  I suspect that many of you are having the same thoughts.  Political conversation is a measure of the civic health of our country, and right now that health is fragile.  Lincoln was not a perfect human, as Strand points out time and again in Lincolnesque.  The same can be said for Thomas Jefferson, the other American president whose words have inspired across decades even as his flaws as a person have been identified and examined in detail.  However, even in today’s understanding of history, author Thomas Reston writes that Barack Obama could note that, “’Thomas Jefferson represents what’s best in America,’ . . . even as he (Obama) pointedly recognized that Jefferson’s household was built and maintained by slaves.”  What Lincoln and Jefferson did best was to focus on big ideas and big politics, not policies.

Studio Lincoln

Studio Lincoln by Daniel Chester French at Chesterwood, a National Trust Historic Site (credit Carol Highsmith)

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. once said:  “It seems to me that at this time we need education in the obvious more than investigation of the obscure.”  While we don’t need leaders who steal “Lincolnesque” citations, we do need the same clear thought about what it means to be an American. An education in the obvious, in other words. Historian (and National Trust Honorary Trustee) David McCullough has said, “What we Americans need above all is leadership to define the national ambition.”  Speaking to the National Trust conference in Providence after the 9/11 attacks, David reminded us that as a country:

“We have resources beyond imagining, and the greatest of these is our brainpower….And we have a further, all-important, inexhaustible source of strength.  And that source of strength is our story, our history, who we are, how we got to be where we are, and all we have been through, what we have achieved.”

That strikes me as what’s missing in today’s course discourse. Just like playwrights and other artists, historians and preservationists dedicated to telling the full American story and linking it to our present and future can help provide that “education in the obvious.”  It won’t be easy to be heard over the noise of today’s discourse, but I believe we have to try.  Our nation’s political health may depend on it.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Yes, The Playoffs Are Beginning Without Us

BaseballYou may have noticed that I haven’t posted very much on the baseball season since the All-Star game.  For those watching the Nats’ season fall apart, the reason will be obvious.  And now that the local nine have wrapped up a miserable year, we get to begin speculation here in D.C. on where Bryce will land next year.  Frankly, I’ve read about all the ink I care to on Harper.  I just hope he makes up his mind early and doesn’t drag this out all year.  Robles and Soto are two excellent young (and cheap) outfielders, so it isn’t like we’d have chopped liver out there in the outfield

But let’s move on to the teams still playing.  The team with the top record, the Boston Red Sox, look good, but I think they have a tough row to hoe to win it all.

To cut to the chase, here are my picks/hopes:

First in the American League:

  • I hope the A’s (now Claire’s team since she lives in Oakland) use their “new pitcher every inning” strategy and shock the Baby Bombers in the Wild Card.
  • In what may be the best series of the first round, I’m picking the Astros over the Indians.
  • With the A’s in out of the wild card game, I’ll take the Red Sox.
  • For the ALCS, I’d have to pick the Astros over the Sox. While the Sox have been great, they have too many problems in key areas (e.g., pitching).
DJB with ABB and CHB at Nats Park

With my two favorite baseball fans: Dad does his best to make baseball fans of the next generation

Then the National League:

  • While I’d like to see the Rockies win the NL Wild Card, I suspect it will be the Cubs.
  • I don’t want either team to win, but I think the Dodgers are getting hot and will take the Braves.
  • I’m going to take the Brewers over the Cubs, just because they are such fun to watch and I’ve loved Lorenzo Cain since he was with KC.
  • And on that note, I’m going to take the Brewers over the Dodgers to get to the World Series.

And in the World Series:

  • I think we have a repeat champion with the Astros, although the Brewers could give them a good run for their money.

Few teams had a more disappointing season than the Nats, but the Mets fall in that category.  So I sympathized—and laughed out loud—at this wonderful article on the announcers for the Mets.  Here’s just a small sample of some wonderful baseball writing:

“The problem, though, is that baseball — good, high-level baseball — often is boring. A “perfect game” is one in which, miraculously, nothing happens. Ten-pitch at-bats that end in routine groundouts are boring, and shaving a few seconds off them won’t fix that. Gary Keith and Ron aren’t magicians, but perhaps they do represent an alternate strategy for attacking baseball’s existential crisis: fix the game itself, yes, but fix the conversation around it too. Baseball is a peculiar sport, filled with dozens of climactic anticlimaxes, and wide pockets of time for digressions into movies or politics or, in Keith’s case, deeply felt opinions about uniform design. But too many booths are occupied by people with nothing to say — a problem some of them solve by literally not talking. With Gary Keith and Ron, meanwhile, each one has enough charisma to carry stretches of a broadcast on his own. And anyway, if things ever get too sleepy, Keith will just announce that he’s nodding off, which, ironically, is quite fun.”

Do yourself a favor and read this article.  And yes, you will note that the Nats consistently have one of the worst rated announcing teams in Major League Baseball.  After this season, that figures.

Let’s play ball!

More to come…

DJB

Good Trouble

Congressman John Lewis is a hero to many.  A hero whose skull was cracked more than fifty years ago while working for justice.  So in June when he sent out the following on his twitter account, it was a message worth hearing that day and every day:

“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”

Lewis wasn’t calling for a “don’t worry, be happy” type of response to the issues of our times. Instead he knows—from more than five decades in the trenches—that despair creates apathy, and apathy destroys activism.  One activist who was in Lewis’ training camps in Mississippi in 1964 notes that “Giving in to despair is lazy surrender.”

Makers in the Mansion

The dining room table at Woodlawn as envisioned by Hadiya Williams as part of the “Makers in the Mansion” exhibit

A few years ago, when the National Trust conference was held in Nashville, John Lewis challenged us to believe in the idea that “my house is your house.  My story is your story.  The history of my people is the history of all Americans not just African Americans.”  Hearing, understanding, and honoring the full diversity of America’s story is a lifetime of work that helps provide the connective tissue between the me and the we, and leads us to care for something larger than ourselves.  As American Express Foundation President Tim McClimon recently wrote in Forbes, “Historic preservation may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of activism, but it actually is one of the longest-running and most successful activist movements in the United States.”

Whatever your life’s work, whatever activism is triggered by your passion, it is likely that Lewis’ admonition fits.  Few things worth doing take less than a lifetime, and it is easy at times to get lost in a sea of despair. But think about what “good trouble” would look like for you…and then don’t be afraid to go make some noise.

Have a good week.

DJB

Life is Not a Rehearsal

Tommy Emmanuel is one of the world’s best guitarists, yet he’s not widely known in a field that often places glitz above skill.  As Emmanuel explains in the opening to a very entertaining TEDx talk, when he told a fellow traveler in business class that he made a living playing the guitar, he had to respond to the question “What band are you in?” with the fact that he played solo guitar. His seatmate looked at him as if Emmanuel had stumbled into the wrong section of the aircraft.

But as he thought about it, Emmanuel explained that he does, in fact, play in a band.  A one man band. In his TEDx talk he showcases the amazing skills that have made him so in demand by demonstrating how he plays the bass line, the drummer’s riff, the fills from a rhythm section, and the melody line all at once. If you’re like me, your jaw will drop with the complexity of the music and you’ll laugh at the line “look at how much money I’m saving up here!”

This is clearly someone who has found how to blend his passion with his job.  As Emmanuel describes it, he has a calling.

Tommy Emmanuel

Tommy Emmanuel (credit: TommyEmmanuel.com)

Angela Duckworth, the MacArthur Fellow recipient and author of Grit notes that,

“Fortunate indeed are those who have a top-level goal so consequential to the world that it imbues everything they do, no matter how small or tedious, with significance.  Consider the parable of the bricklayers:

Three bricklayers are asked:  ‘What are you doing?’

The first says, ‘I am laying bricks.’

The second says, ‘I am building a church.’

And he third says, ‘I am building the house of God.’

The first bricklayer has a job.  The second has a career.  The third has a calling.”

Emmanuel is fortunate in that he recognizes that his work impacts people in special ways. He knows that what’s important is not the critics’ take on his work, but the connections he makes with those who come to hear him play. Connection with others is not just a musician’s stock-in-trade, but is a skill many of us—not fortunate enough to have killer guitar chops—find important in taking a job to a calling.  To do work we are passionate about.  Emmanuel also notes that none other than the great Chet Atkins called him “the most fearless guitar player he’d ever heard.”  Emmanuel continues, “I think that being fearless is a huge part in breaking molds and in raising self-belief.”

Connecting with others. Fearlessness in what we do.  Building self-belief.  Remembering that you are the master of your own obituary.  Or, as Tommy Emmanuel says it at the end of his talk:  “Life is not a rehearsal, so you’d better get on with it.”

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

P.S. – For you Jason Isbell fans, in the video above you can hear Tommy play and Jason sing on a signature song by my first guitar hero, Doc Watson, from Tommy’s most recent album Accomplice One.  Enjoy.

Better Living Through (Better) Email

Virtually everyone I know in the working world believes there are too many emails and too many meetings.  Yes, I know, this isn’t exactly breaking news.

I’m fascinated by our love/hate relationship with emails.  We all get too many emails, and yet we inevitably send them out and contribute to the clogged up boxes of our colleagues. I’m exhibit A in that regard.  While I fume at times about the quality (or lack of quality) and the volume of emails, I send out an email to my colleagues like clockwork on Monday morning.*

How can we use email more effectively to make our lives easier?

First, to state the obvious the only effective email is one that is read.  Thankfully, the internet is full of great suggestions as to how to tailor your email messages to be effective. When I’m writing I try—but don’t always succeed—in getting to the point, in making good use of the subject line, and in trying not to overcommunicate.  I think how we write is important.

But how we manage our email is just as important to keeping this communication tool in perspective. Here are a few thoughts on how I tackle email management that may be helpful to you:

  • If you are looking at your emails in the morning before you have your calendar and work prioritized, stop.  Don’t waste your most valuable time looking at what others have thrown in your in-box.  Be proactive.  Be in charge of your life.
  • You may find that you work best on the weekend, or need that time to catch up.  Fine.  But don’t assume that your colleagues want to hear from you outside of the business week. Unless your job requires that you be accessible, work hard to honor your colleagues’ personal time.  Learn how to delay delivery (under “Options” in Microsoft Outlook) so all those wonderful messages you’ve written over the weekend start showing up only after the start of the business week.  Especially if you are in management, try and model good email behavior and etiquette.  If you are sending the signal that personal time is not as valuable as work time, then those who work with and for you will follow your cues.
  • Understand the basic rules of email:  1) 99% of the time when you are listed in the copy (cc) line of an email, you don’t need to respond.  You are not the recipient. This is just for your information.  Resist the urge to jump into someone else’s conversation.  2) Learn the appropriate way to respond to emails. HINT: “Reply all” is often not the appropriate response. 3) Stay away from blind carbon copies (bcc’s) unless you will never be embarrassed when someone you blind copied responds to all the recipients.  4) There is an appropriate time to use bcc’s however. When you have a number of recipients (like the board or everyone in the division), consider putting them into the bcc line and just put your own name in the TO line.  That way, if someone uses “reply all” they will only be responding to you.

Finally, I feel the need to say in this day and age of rude language and poor manners at the highest levels of our civic life, being polite goes a long way. I like receiving an email that begins with my name, or even “Dear David.”  Closing out an email with “Regards” or “All the best” also shows that you are still thinking of your manners after writing your message.  When I begin each email with a nice greeting, I find myself calming down even as I was preparing to fire off a hot salvo about some perceived slight or bad screw-up.  This fits with direction I received from my grandmother, who told us to “always say please and thank you.”

As in many things in life, look around at the people you admire.  Who is using email effectively?  How can you emulate them?  Digital communication is here to stay, but it will continue to evolve.  Think of how you can evolve along with it.

Typewriter Exhibit

Typewriter exhibition from the Exploratorium in San Francisco…as a reminder that communications evolve.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

*I do, however, give staff permission to delete them without opening and without hurting my feelings.