He Sows Hurry and Reaps Indigestion

Labor Day is seen by many as the start of a new year.  School begins for teachers and children. The summer break is over and schedules ramp up.  Everywhere we look we’re called upon to pick up the pace.

In this day and age, work/life balance is a major theme of Harvard Business Review articles, TED Talks, HR seminars, and more.  We may think this is a new phenomenon, arising from the astonishing leaps in technology which work 24/7 even if we aren’t capable—as humans—of keeping up.  But the question has been around for a much longer period of time than just the 21st century.  A colleague and I were discussing the need for her direct reports—who have major responsibilities and work very hard at their jobs—to take time off.  She mentioned that one individual told her that he had not taken a vacation because “the place couldn’t run without me.”  I smiled and suggested that she pass along the advice I heard from my grandmother, who liked to say, “The graveyard is full of people who thought the world couldn’t get along without them.”  My grandmother, whose life spanned much of the 20th century, was speaking about unnecessary busyness and self-importance.  Even earlier, in 1877, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote An Apology for Idlers in which he makes the following statement:

“Look at one of your industrious fellows for a moment, I beseech you. He sows hurry and reaps indigestion; he puts a vast deal of activity out to interest and receives a large measure of nervous derangement in return.”

I’ve made the case for finding the time to let your mind wander.  To take time off to walk.  Perhaps, even, to dawdle. When thinking of how to achieve a proper balance in life during this time of year, consider how you approach work as much as how to separate work and family life.  If you find yourself always in a hurry to complete a task to move forward to the next one, consider Sara Cameron’s question in her TEDx Talk:  “When are you going to stop being so busy?”  Cameron—an Integrative Psychology and Relationship Coach—suggests we are engineering our busy schedules to avoid connecting with others.  “It is easy being busy” but balance takes work.  We have to stop multitasking in order to keep up with our busy schedules.  (HINT: It doesn’t work anyway.)  By taking time to be idle, walk, dawdle, be open to the serendipitous, we can be more productive and build more balance into our lives.

Traffic School

Slow Down

Cameron wraps up her talk by noting that balance isn’t an object, but a practice.  We can’t pick it up at the store on the way home. We have to build a practice of balance into every day.  Building white space into our lives—idling, if you will—gives us time to understand and integrate the experiences we have that all go together to make us the people we are.  That white space can take the form of 15 minutes of blank space on your calendar, or a week or two away from the office.

Idling, dawdling, building in white space—whatever you want to call it—doesn’t mean you neglect your work.  Stevenson had been at work on his article a year before its appearance, “which shows that his Apology for Idlers demanded from him anything but idling.” As one of his biographers put it, “there was hardly any time when the author of the Apology for Idlers ever really neglected the tasks of his true vocation.”  We can do the same, focusing on what’s important and understanding that to connect, be balanced, and be productive, we have to give ourselves some time to idle.

Have a good week.

More to come..

DJB

The Power of Words

Former President Obama’s recent summer reading list reminded me of how much I pick up fresh insights from seeing what books others recommend.  When I finish several months’ worth of reading, I’ll pass along my takes on those works to anyone who cares to listen, simply because I believe in the power of the written word.  Writer Cheryl Strayed said she was seven years old when she understood that, as Margaret Atwood wrote in her poem Spelling,

 “a word after a word after a word is power.”

According to Strayed, the power of those words she read at age seven, “wasn’t the sort of power we associate with politics or world affairs . . . It wasn’t the kind of power we talk about when we talk about destruction or physical force. It wasn’t about defeat or domination or control. It was about a deeper, older, truer sort of power, one that calls upon the original meaning of the word, which is derived from the Latin posse.  It means, quite simply, to be able. It’s a definition of power that’s about doing and creating, about writing word after word after word on the page.”

Earlier this year, the National Trust Council visited Oxford, Mississippi, where many of our members demonstrated the power of words by making a pilgrimage to Square Books—one of the country’s best-known independent bookstores.  I love the quote from Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby included on the store’s bookmarks, because it speaks to the special power of the written word:

“The object we call a book is not the real book, but its seed or potential, like a music score.  It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the seed germinates, the symphony resounds. A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another.”

We learn a great deal by what others tell us about a book, but you have to read it to understand the power, get it in your head, and have it beat in your chest.  With our children on the west coast in August, we recently gathered on California’s Monterey Peninsula for a week’s vacation.  Given that we were less than a mile from historic Cannery Row—and having heard good things about this book from others—I dove into John Steinbeck’s 1945 novel that helped make this street of old sardine factories and marine laboratories famous.  Cannery Row was a delightful read, especially since I walked daily among the buildings and places that inspired the characters of Doc, Mack and the boys, Dora Flood, and Lee Chong. The connection between story and place took that book into my head and helped it beat in my chest. The book focuses on life as it is and celebrates community, while also acknowledging the loneliness of the individual. Steinbeck’s descriptive language and imagery—“What can it profit a man to gain the whole world and to come to his property with a gastric ulcer, a blown prostate, and bifocals?”—are as sharp and inspired as one would expect from a winner of both the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes.  Key to much of this book, as well as his classic The Grapes of Wrath, is this strong sense of place.

 

Steinbeck Monument

Steinbeck Monument on Cannery Row

 

Places that we save and celebrate are full of stories, both real and inspired, that tell much about us as a country and as individuals.

If you’re reading anything that has gotten into your head, is beating in your chest, or is powerful to you, please share it with someone. James Baldwin said in a 1963 interview with Life magazine, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.  It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”

Sharing is fundamental to connecting with others. Connecting with others is fundamental to a balanced and productive life. Share the power of words.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Finding Perspective

I recently asked my colleague Priya Chhaya to open a retreat with a reflection on changing perspectives.  We were discussing a familiar theme, the future of the American city, in an unexpected place—in this particular case, under the night sky in the American west.  For one of the readings, she chose the Sylvia Plath poem Stars Over Dordogne, calling out the second verse in particular:

“Where I am at home, only the sparsest stars

Arrive at twilight, and then after some effort.

And they are wan, dulled by much travelling.

The smaller and more timid never arrive at all

But stay, sitting far out, in their own dust.

They are orphans. I cannot see them. They are lost.

But tonight they have discovered this river with no trouble,

They are scrubbed and self-assured as the great planets.”

Priya noted that when in a city, which is home for many of us, you often only see what is right in front of you: the buildings, the roads, the cars, the noise, the obvious density. But a change in place can clear our minds to think beyond what is immediately in our line of sight to things that exist but which can be difficult to comprehend.  Our perspective is changed.

Plath takes a similar line of thought in ending Stars Over Dordogne:

“And what if the sky here is no different.

And it is my eyes that have been sharpening themselves?”

August is a time when many of us head off for summer vacations.  If that fits with your plans, think about how a change in place can bring a change in perspective.

The Montana landscape following thunderstrom

The Montana landscape following a western thunderstorm

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Plans vs. Planning

This is my season for strategic planning.  Last week I spent a full day with our colleagues at the National Trust Historic Site Filoli for their strategic planning retreat.  As you read this, I’m on a plane for another retreat with 20 team members designed to scale up one of our most important organizational initiatives.  When I return, I have a half-day financial planning retreat set for early August.

That’s a lot of planning!

There are some who say that strategic plans are useless. They generally throw around the phrase “no plan survives contact with the enemy,” which is a popular adaptation of a phrase uttered by Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke, also known as Moltke the Elder. He was a German Field Marshal who lived between 1800 and 1891 and is credited with creating a new approach to directing armies in the field. This entailed developing a series of options rather than simply a single plan.  Note that he didn’t stop planning.  He simply recognized that in changing environments, you need options and the ability to move within a widely understood general strategy.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Graham Kenny helps explain why some have challenges with the idea of plans and planning.

“Mention the word ‘plan’ to most managers and the image that springs to their minds might well be a travel plan. Drawn up by travel agents, these lay out in clear and certain terms the sequence of your trip and what to expect when, specifying: where you’re going from, your destination, where you’ll stay en route and when, how you’ll travel, and so forth.

Or they’ll think of the kind of plans builders employ, often referred to as ‘blueprints.’ The result is much the same as with travel: a specific beginning and end with precise steps along the way. Both plans are neat, prescribed, determined — and manageable.  You figure out what to do and then do it.

But not all types of plans have that level of precision.  In a fluid, unpredictable environment you need to have a very different understanding of plans and planning.”

Kenny quotes Churchill (“Plans are of little importance but planning is essential”) and then he moves on to note that in fluid environments, as one sees with strategic plans, we too often think of this work like travel planning when we need a different mindset.  The HBR article has several important principles to consider when planning.  Here are two that resonated with me:

  • First, think of your plan as a guidance tool.  Many managers “anticipate that by doing the necessary analysis and writing down how their business will succeed the world will be converted from uncertain to certain. In their eyes the strategic plan becomes a device for control rather than one of guidance. They’re not comfortable with the fluid and uncertain Moltke-the-Elder concept.”
  • Second, assume the plan is a work in progress. “A strategic plan is not a set-and-forget instrument. It’s a living and breathing document that guides decision making and helps marshal resources.”  Harry Kangis, who developed the One-Page Strategic Plan concept we use at the National Trust, is fond of saying “We’re not pouring concrete here.”

I don’t have to remind many of you that the world doesn’t stand still while we plan.  But that why planning’s important role is in preparing for change.  We all know that change is going to happen. Will you have planned for it?

Journals

Planning is essential

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Collaboration Moves at the Speed of Trust

Earlier this month I attended a conference where speaker after speaker inspired the attendees while addressing some of the key issues of our time.  My notebook was filled with thoughts and information.  However, one note—a  Chris Thompson quote—stood out for me above all the rest.

“Collaboration moves at the speed of trust.”

 This simple assertion has been playing around in my mind ever since.  When I came to the National Trust more than two decades ago, I recall sitting in a meeting where I asked a colleague why she was not engaging others in the organization on a particular project.  Her response was, “I don’t trust them to do the job to the standard I want.”  It struck me as a telling remark on a number of levels, but this long-ago exchange was one of the first thoughts that came into my mind when I heard Chris Thompson’s quote. This colleague—a wonderful person who now runs a successful one-person consulting firm—was upfront in admitting her lack of trust.  And that lack of trust meant that she was not going to collaborate.

Trust is something earned, and when lost we have to work hard to rebuild it in others. I find that when I take an action that causes a loss of trust in others, or when others make decisions or take actions that cause me to lose my trust in them, the first step to rebuilding that trust is to acknowledge the loss. Together. Disagreements don’t necessarily break the bonds of trust, as they simply represent different perspectives.  However, at other times disagreements, as well as mistakes that go unacknowledged, break those bonds. We are so often focused on making an excuse for a mistake that we don’t step back and say, “I didn’t act out of my values, and I recognize that I’ve lost your trust.”  That simple acknowledgement goes a long way towards building a culture of collaboration.  The poet David Wythe has noted that as individuals are promoted in organizations and businesses they often move away from original core technical competencies and move into the field of key human relationships, relationships that are mostly sustained through holding necessary and courageous conversations. I find in many organizations, that’s true at almost every level.  Those conversations and the actions that follow are what build trust.

Collaboration is so important to our success that it is worth the effort to build—and sometimes rebuild—trust.  As the old African proverb says, “If you want to go quickly, go alone.  If you want to go far, go together.”

Let’s commit to collaborating at the speed of trust.

Have a good week, and more to come…

DJB

Resilience

There’s an old saying that goes, “The only constant in the world is change.”  That may be hard for some in historic preservation to accept, but I’ve often said that our job as preservationists isn’t to block change, but instead to work to manage the type of future—and communities—we want.

Right or lefgt

Right or left

I was thinking recently about the concept of resilience when facing change.  Author Kathleen Smith has suggested that “Many people spend a great deal of time and energy trying to avoid change, but it will inevitably catch up to them.”  When building personal strategies for strengthening resilience, she begins with the Stephen Covey construct of the ”Circle of Concern/Circle of Influence”, urging us to focus on what we can control.  She also encourages her readers to check their thought patterns.

“In times of change, it’s easy for your mind to cut corners. You might see everything in black or white, or you assume the worst will occur. But if you take the time to examine your thought patterns and assess how rational they are, you might find some space to nudge your thinking towards resilience….You can also generate more positive thoughts if you take the time to remind yourself about transitions and challenges you successfully navigated in the past. Make a list of ways you’ve been resilient in your life, and consider what traits and actions might be able to see you through the current challenge. By focusing on your strengths instead of your weaknesses, you will feel more empowered to meet what lies ahead.”

There are several elements of this passage that strike me as true. I’ve seen, in myself and others, the tendency to cut corners in our thinking and focus on the “worst case scenario” when faced with change. And while the past doesn’t decide the future, we can certainly benefit when we let our present be informed by what we know from the past.

Charles Darwin once said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”  Change is inevitable.  Resilience is not.  We have to work at it to succeed — both in our communities and in our personal lives.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Be Present When Serendipity Strikes

Harp Guitar

Harp Guitar

It was a flight like dozens of others I’ve taken in the summertime: delayed, due to thunderstorms, and the prospect of climbing into bed much later than planned with an early morning wake-up on the other end.

When I finally boarded last Monday’s flight from Nashville after a day’s work on our campaign to save Music Row, it barely registered that my two seatmates had stashed guitars in the luggage bin. This was Nashville, after all. I mumbled a couple of hellos, and promptly fell into my customary power nap around take-off. Waking up thirty minutes later, I opened my laptop and started work on a project that was overdue.

Only after returning to my seat later in the flight did I exchange real conversation with the woman seated in the middle seat, between her boyfriend and me.  As I often do, I asked what type of guitar she played.  She replied, “One’s a harp guitar and the other is a flamenco guitar.”  Bing!  My mind suddenly woke up.  Harp guitars are pretty esoteric instruments, and those who play them approach their music with religious zeal.  They also tend to be very good musicians. I mentioned to her that I enjoyed the music of Stephen Bennett, a harp guitar devotee. In fact, I was listening to some of his music at that moment on my iPad.  She replied that she knew Stephen, and then seeing that the terrific guitarist and composer Alex De Grassi was next in my musical queue, she said “I’m playing with Alex next week.” She followed that by asking if I knew Tommy Emmanuel, another stellar guitarist.  I replied that I knew his music, but didn’t know him personally, upon which she handed me her headphones and played a video from a recent concert where he joined her for an impromptu—and beautiful—duet on one of her compositions.

At this point I stuck out my hand and said, “Hi, I’m David Brown.”  She replied, “I’m Muriel Anderson.”

Oh my goodness.  I was sitting next to the woman who I’d proclaimed my love for to God and the internet, after hearing her version of the Beatles tune Day Tripper. I had wandered all over BWI airport several years ago trying to find where she was going to play in a gig promoted as BWI Live.

Muriel Anderson

Muriel Anderson

Over the last half hour of the flight we talked guitar makers (her harp guitar was built by Mike Doolin and I showed her pictures of my two Running Dog guitars by luthier Rick Davis), harp guitar festivals, historic preservation and the importance of saving Music Row, and her newest album Nightlight Daylight, which is a two-CD set with music for the morning and music for the evening.  She was pleased that Guitar Player magazine named Nightlight Daylight among the top 10 CDs of the decade but even more pleased, I think, to show me the interactive fiber-optic lighted CD cover.  (Push on the moon and the night stars come out. Very cool!)

This is a musician who has collaborated with some of the best:  the late guitarists Chet Atkins and Les Paul, for example.  Yet she was as engaging, lively, down-to-earth, and interesting in person as she came across on stage and in her music.  When I mentioned the National Trust had a hand in saving RCA Studio A in Nashville, she immediately said, “And you saved Chet’s office!”  I told Muriel that I’d had the privilege of sitting in that very office, finger-picking on a beautiful guitar owned by the man who bought the building at the 11th hour. As we were leaving I said, “I have a Gallagher guitar at home, and I bet you can guess why.”  After thinking a bit she said, “You’re a Doc Watson fan, and that was Doc’s guitar.”  Then she added, “He was my first guitar hero.”  I knew that, having read it online at some point.  He was mine as well.

I know I can be oblivious at times, but this experience reminded me—once again—of how much we need to wake up and focus on life. Not all encounters are so serendipitous or pleasurable, and yours—when they happen—will be different.  Perhaps you’ll get to meet the writer you’ve always admired, or gain an insight for work you’ve long sought but needed a serendipitous moment to find.  When it happens it can be wonderful.  Trouble is, you won’t have the chance if you don’t take your head away from the screen or out of the conversation in your head, and talk with real people.

Have a good week, and when a bit of serendipity comes your way, may you be present to receive it.

More to come…

DJB