What Do You Think About in the Shower

I began a recent conversation with, “I was thinking about this earlier today in the shower.”  You may think that’s too much information to share at work, but I believe that the time we use to think in the shower is critical to our productivity and creativity.  Paul Graham goes further to say “it’s hard to do a really good job on anything you don’t think about in the shower.”

I have certainly wrestled day after day with issues, becoming disheartened over time. It takes different ways of thinking at different times to push through the fog. Hard problems don’t lend themselves to easy analysis.  And yet, one day you’ll find yourself walking, daydreaming, or — in this most recent case — in the shower, and the path becomes clear.

When I am most productive, I find that the issues that are top of mind are the fundamental ones to my job or life. When I’m flailing, my top of mind issues are unimportant or, even worse, distractions. I have found that by being aware that my mind is wandering off into unproductive territory, there are some things I can do to pull it back into focus on the thing that matters.

Graham, founder of the venture capital firm Y Combinator, notes the challenge:

“I think most people have one top idea in their mind at any given time. That’s the idea their thoughts will drift toward when they’re allowed to drift freely. And this idea will thus tend to get all the benefit of that type of thinking, while others are starved of it. Which means it’s a disaster to let the wrong idea become the top one in your mind. . . .You can’t directly control where your thoughts drift. If you’re controlling them, they’re not drifting. But you can control them indirectly, by controlling what situations you let yourself get into. That has been the lesson for me: be careful what you let become critical to you. Try to get yourself into situations where the most urgent problems are ones you want to think about.” (emphasis added)

Disputes and slights are one of the primary areas that Graham identifies as dangerous territory for your thoughts.

“Turning the other cheek turns out to have selfish advantages. Someone who does you an injury hurts you twice: first by the injury itself, and second by taking up your time afterward thinking about it. If you learn to ignore injuries you can at least avoid the second half. I’ve found I can to some extent avoid thinking about nasty things people have done to me by telling myself: this doesn’t deserve space in my head. I’m always delighted to find I’ve forgotten the details of disputes, because that means I hadn’t been thinking about them. My wife thinks I’m more forgiving than she is, but my motives are purely selfish.”

The Wandering Mind

The Wandering Mind by Michael Corballis

Think about your shower this morning and the idea or ideas rummaging around your brain.  Was it the most important focus for you, a key to getting ahead and accomplishing your goals?  Or, are you giving up valuable real estate in your brain to undeserving distractions?  Are you letting others control your life? Are you letting the wrong things become critical to you?

Think about that the next time you step into the shower.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

What’s the Rush?

Oxfords

Walking shoes – to move at the speed of life

Spring is a season when the pace quickens. To snap out of the winter doldrums, we feel the need to rush.  Projects are suddenly due.  Deadlines appear to be on top of us every day.  Travel demands increase. In the rushing rhythm of the days, I find it necessary to maintain my perspective if I’m going to keep my equilibrium.  Thankfully, I came across an essay which helped me put the pressure to rush in perspective.

Robyn Ryle is a sociologist and writer who I first met when she spoke at our National Main Street conference.  Robyn lives in Madison, Indiana — one of the country’s great Main Street communities — where she teaches sociology, writes books on changing notions of gender, and blogs about place (among other topics) on the web site You Think Too Much.  There is wisdom in her tales of life away from the coasts.  As I read her essay on driving the speed limit, I immediately felt myself slow down.

“Today I picked up my book of daily yoga and read, ‘Today, drive the speed limit.’ That was all.

It wasn’t very profound compared to other days when I’ve contemplated gratefulness or stated out loud my intention for the day or cultivated my inner child. Just, ‘Drive the speed limit.’ I guess if you’re coming up with a different yoga meditation for every day of the year, you might very well run dry by October, I thought.

I am not what you would call a speed demon. I certainly drive faster than my husband. I’ll admit that sometimes when I’m riding with him I stare at the speedometer pointedly, and he is kind enough to ignore me. I am one of those people who is annoyed if the person in front of me on the road is driving the actual speed limit. ‘Who do they think they are?’ I wonder. ‘Don’t they know that you’re supposed to go at least 5-10 miles over the speed limit? It’s, like, a rule.’

But my book of daily yoga has not led me astray yet, so I got in the car and drove the speed limit. Thirty miles an hour on 2nd Street downtown, which was not so hard. Thirty miles an hour on Main Street was harder, but I did it. I slowed down. And I thought.

When someone drives slow in front of me, I get angry. I feel they have violated some inherent right of mine to go fast. To get to the next place. To move on. To get it over with and on to the next thing. Driving the speed limit it occurred to me that this is crazy.

First, I have no god-given right to go fast and, second, why do I want to? What’s the rush?”

What’s the rush, indeed?  A quote incorrectly attributed to John Lennon makes the point that “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”  Taking the time to move at the speed of life — and think — is counter-intuitive to how we should address our over-crowded schedules and pressing deadlines.  But it works. Rushing to finish up projects to get to the next thing doesn’t make them better and often makes them worse.

Traffic School

Slow Down

It was Edward Abbey who memorably said, “Life is already too short to waste on speed.”

Take the time to travel at the speed limit. Take the time to travel at the speed of life. And have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Have the Courage to Change Your Mind

By the time I first met John Buchanan, he had finished his eight terms in the U.S. Congress as a Republican representing Birmingham, Alabama. This third generation Baptist minister was long past the time when he was targeted for defeat in 1980 by the Moral Majority.  He was even past his term as the founding chairman of the liberal lobbying group People for the American Way.  When I met John and his wife Betty in the 1990s, they were the loving and selfless grandparents to a granddaughter who was in a youth group with our twins.  However, their intellect, courage, sense of public service, and generous spirit were still very much in evidence in everything they touched.

Congressman John Buchanan

The Honorable John H. Buchanan, Jr. (Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives)

Betty died in 2011, and I was thinking about our connections and their lives after I heard the news of John’s passing on March 5th at the age of 89.  John had the courage to change his mind, even at the cost of his political future.  First elected in the Republican wave of 1964, following the passage of the Civil Rights Act, John began as a conventional Southern conservative.  But Ellie Silverman’s obituary in the Washington Post described the changes that took place in John over time.

“At first, Mr. Buchanan had a conservative record and voted against the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but his experience at the biracial Riverside Baptist Church in Southwest Washington led to a shift in his views.

‘When you’re deeply involved in a biracial entity, you think of people as brothers and sisters,’ he told The Washington Post in 1976. ‘Then the denial of rights of my brothers and sisters becomes an infringement of my rights as well.’”

As he moved away from his traditional political orthodoxy on civil rights issues, John supported landmark legislation such as Title IX, which required equality for women in college and university programs, including sports, and he called for full voting rights for residents of Washington, D.C.  The irony of having this Baptist minister — the son and grandson of Baptist ministers — successfully targeted for defeat by the Moral Majority was not lost on many who knew him.

I’ve quoted the writer Maria Popova before, who suggested that we should allow ourselves the uncomfortable luxury of changing our mind.  In John’s case, changing his mind was more than an uncomfortable luxury. It was courageous and — because he acted on his convictions — it came with consequences.  However, as with many difficult decisions which are based on the stories we tell of our American past and how we treat our fellow citizens, the effect can be liberating. Silverman describes the effect on John in her obituary.

“’I’ve become more emancipated as I’ve gone along,’ Mr. Buchanan said in 1976, describing the evolution of his political views.  ‘I’m at the point in my political career where I’d rather lose . . . than fail to do what I think is right. I won’t compromise on civil rights any more. I can’t do it, I will not do it.’”

All of us face our own challenges in work and life.  It is good to be reminded that we can follow the example of those who have gone before and have the courage to change our minds when that’s the right thing to do.

Rest in Peace, John H. Buchanan, Jr.

DJB

Celebrating International Women’s Day

Men Explain Things

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

I made a resolution in 2016 to return and read Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me once or twice a year, just to keep that clear voice and perspective front of mind.  International Women’s Day seemed to be a special moment this year to act on that resolution.

I took time today during my lunch break to read, once again, of the silencing that occurs when men talk over women.  As Solnit phrases it, “Being told that, categorically, he knows what he’s talking about and she doesn’t, however minor a part of any given conversation, perpetuates the ugliness of this world and holds back its light.”  We are living in an age when our civic discourse shows just how serious the impacts of this silencing can be.  Solnit ends the postscript to the original essay by noting, “Having the right to show up and speak are basic to survival, to dignity, and to liberty.”

I think about this dynamic a great deal.  When I’m learning from and celebrating the accomplishments of women, I am reminded of how important it is to have these basic rights. To hear from this experience and knowledge. To hear of these stories and perspectives.  When I find myself speaking over women in conversations or in meetings, I am reminded (often too late) of the position of privilege that I – a white male – often take for granted.

Solnit’s is a powerful voice, and I recommend you read anything by her you can get your hands on.  I went on a Solnit reading binge several months ago and found myself both humbled and enlightened.

I was also working on a presentation today which included a quote from The Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray.  That quote brought her story back to my mind: that of an African American member of the LGBTQ community, Civil Rights and Women’s Rights activist, the lawyer responsible for producing what Justice Thurgood Marshall called “the Bible of Civil Rights law,” a poet and writer, the first female African American Episcopal priest, and an Episcopal saint. Pauli Murray is one of the great, underappreciated women of the 20th century who is rightfully celebrated today.  The quote — which is featured on a mural in her hometown of Durham, North Carolina — is as relevant today as it was the day she said it:

“True Community is based upon equality, mutuality, and reciprocity.  It affirms the richness of individual diversity as well as the common human ties that bind us together.”

Pauli Murray Mural

Portrait of Pauli Murray, on a wall in downtown Durham, NC

Wonderful words to remember on International Women’s Day…and every day.

More to come…
DJB

I Am Still Every Age That I Have Been

A Wrinkle in Time

“A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle

It was a big week in our household, as we acquired a new hip and celebrated a birthday.*  As a small child, you may have received a new puppy on your special day.  Others years may bring clothes for college or gifts for the new apartment. Later, you might rejoice with a new child or a special trip abroad. On occasion one might celebrate a birthday with a broken shoulder.  Now that we’re in the new hip stage (for a second time), I’m comforted by this thought of the author Madeleine L’Engle:

“I am still every age that I have been. Because I was once a child, I am always a child. Because I was once a searching adolescent, given to moods and ecstasies, these are still part of me, and always will be… This does not mean that I ought to be trapped or enclosed in any of these ages…the delayed adolescent, the childish adult, but that they are in me to be drawn on; to forget is a form of suicide… Far too many people misunderstand what ‘putting away childish things’ means, and think that forgetting what it is like to think and feel and touch and smell and taste and see and hear like a three-year-old or a thirteen-year-old or a twenty-three-year-old means being grownup. When I’m with these people I, like the kids, feel that if this is what it means to be a grown-up, then I don’t ever want to be one. Instead of which, if I can retain a child’s awareness and joy, and ‘be’ fifty-one, then I will really learn what it means to be grownup.”

Living through what you know and who you have been from the years of life is a way to understand current circumstances and embrace new possibilities. The quote popped into my head as I was thinking of Madeleine L’Engle and the buzz about the new A Wrinkle in Time movie that will be released later this week. The folding of space and time is at the core of the story, as is the power of love over evil. My children both read the book when they were young, and it remains among the most influential of their lives. Candice took a week-long writing class led by L’Engle some 25 years ago and returned with a copy of “Wrinkle” signed by the author to me.  I pulled it out last weekend when a colleague said she had been encouraged by my earlier note to “read when it is inconvenient” and — in the midst of our recent board meetings — began to re-read the book before the movie’s launch.  I was equally inspired by her enthusiasm, and quickly finished re-reading this wonderful tale late last week.

Signed copy of A Wrinkle in Time

A prized copy of “A Wrinkle in Time”

As Candice continues her recovery from surgery, I’m using the time to think anew about what it means to be three, thirteen, twenty-five, forty, and (ahem) more all at the same time.  L’Engle’s push to retain a child’s awareness and joy seems like a great place for all of us to begin.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

*Just to be clear, the two things did not happen to the same individual.  Candice acquired the new hip (her second). I celebrated the birthday and acquired two new baseball-themed ties.  While adjusting to the new hip is an all-in family activity, I suspect that I’ll be the only one wearing the baseball ties.

Thoughts for a Birthday

Birthday Mousse

Birthday Mousse

Birthdays are funny things.  You know intellectually that you are only one day older than you were the day before. But the flipping of the year – in my case from 62 to 63 – has effects that have nothing to do with intellect and everything to do with your emotions.

In approaching this year’s birthday, I’ve been focused on the fact that life is short.  I’ve written in the past about the need to savor every moment.  However, when you truly recognize that life is short, you think about how that knowledge will change the way you live.

You begin to think about the things that matter, and the things that get in the way of the things that matter. I can only speak from the perspective of someone still in the workplace, but it is easy to find all-too-many instances from the working world that get in the way of your focus on what matters: useless meetings without agenda or purpose, process designed without thought, colleagues looking to you to do their work. I try and push back against these calls on my time whenever I see them. Technology can also be a time suck, both in and out of work.  David Sax, writing in the Revenge of Analog, quotes a time management expert who says, “You can waste time with all kinds of stuff, but the digital world provides a lot of opportunity to waste a lot of time.”  Getting sucked into the distractions of the never-ending clown show currently taking place at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue strikes me as a waste of time.  Thank God that Robert Mueller seems able to focus on the things that matter.

Paul Graham, in an essay on the topic, calls the stuff that life is too short for bullshit, which he describes as the “junk food of experience.”  Amen.

I have found that the things that matter are often focused on — and around — people.  I’m something of an introvert, so I sometimes have to push myself to reach out to others. Fortunately, I have (almost) never regretted the time I find to focus on others:  family, friends, colleagues, people much younger than me, those in need, the exceptionally talented, the wise elders, the total stranger.  It may not seem substantial, but breakfast with a friend can very much matter.

A breakfast birthday

A birthday breakfast from an earlier year

Being intentional in seeking out the things that matter is a good way to avoid the junk food of experience. That also helps in pushing you to do more of what matters right now.  As the new year began, I started a list of “50 things to do in 2018.”  Some were major, others were simple, but they all mattered to me and I wanted to do them before too much time passed.  Reaching right now for the things that matter is another key to living with the knowledge that life is short.

Graham ends his essay with the following:

“Relentlessly prune bullshit, don’t wait to do things that matter, and savor the time you have. That’s what you do when life is short.”

That sounds about right.  I hope your birthday, whenever it happens this year, gives you a renewed chance to do the things that matter.

More to come…

DJB