Boundaries

Stand Out of Our Light

Stand Out of Our Light by James Williams

Understanding the reality you face is often the first step toward personal and organizational growth.

Consider the oft-heard complaint about our lack of time in this period of ubiquitous technology.   While most of us think of this as the “Information Age,” the reality may be that it would be better characterized as the Age of Attention.  In an age of information abundance, the scare resource is attention.  Technology companies make money when they monopolize our time.  Netflix’s CEO has made this clear in noting that the company “is competing for our customers’ time, so our competitors include Snapchat, YouTube, sleep, etc.”

Let that last one sink in a bit…your sleep is seen as a competitor by Netflix.  If you had any idea that technology companies were looking out for your best interests, this should dissuade you of that notion.

I’m currently reading Stand Out of Our Light, a book written by a former Google strategist turned Oxford-trained philosopher.  James Williams’ career arc was enough to get me to buy the book, but I was equally intrigued to read his take on how “technologies compete to capture and exploit our attention, rather than supporting the true goals we have for our lives.”  From endless games of solitaire to never-ending clickbait to Facebook news feeds to YouTube recommendations that entice us to watch just one more video…we’ve all seen how digital technology eats up our time by capturing more and more of our attention.

Williams believes that the goals of technology companies don’t match our best interests (individually and as citizens), making it imperative that we set our own boundaries.  He quotes the German writer and poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who said, “Who will be great, must be able to limit himself.”  Williams is focused on the capacities that enable us to “want what we want to want,” capacities such as “reflection, memory, prediction, leisure, reasoning, and goal-setting.” We have to apply boundaries in order to “channel our activities toward our higher goals.”

Smart Phones

Smart Phones: Competing for Your Attention

While technology could help us deal with these challenges, that’s not the way of life in our current age.  As  you reflect on that, realize that,

“…notifications or addictive mobile apps may fill up those little moments in the day during which a person might have otherwise reflected on their goals and priorities.  Users check their phones an average of 150 times per day (and touch them over 2,600 times per day), so that would add up to a lot of potential reflection going unrealized.”

There is much we can do in response, and the book looks at steps we should take individually and collectively.  I decided some time ago not to use notifications with my technology, believing that leaving on the email notification feature is like letting the post office rush in and drop a letter on your desk every time you receive an email or text.  Start with the mindset that your email in-box – and essentially all technology – should be for your use, and then work from there.  Such a perspective may help you see the reality a bit more clearly and spend more time on what you want to want.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Extraordinary People Hidden in Plain Sight

In the Mouth of the Wolf

“In the Mouth of the Wolf” by Rose Zar and Eric A. Kimmel

Last week was difficult.  The horrific shooting on Saturday at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh shook many of us to the core. Coming at the end of a week of attempts at mass political assassinations, it called into question assumptions about our nation’s values. As a historian I know that anti-Semitism and bigotry are as old as our country, in fact as old as recorded history. Thankfully, stories of courageous response to bigotry are just as old, yet often not as well known.

The Overlooked Obituary project of the New York Times is designed to recognize extraordinary people overlooked by the editors of the paper in their day. People like Rose Zar, the remarkable mother of my National Trust colleague Howard Zar. Rose Zar’s overlooked obituary appeared in the Times on the anniversary of her death in the Jewish lunar calendar.  That happened to fall during this past week, bringing a story of hope and determination amidst a flood of bad news.

When she was 19 and living in the ghetto in Piotrkow, Poland, Zar—who had been part of the Jewish resistance prior to World War II—begin to feel the Nazi pressure on home and family.  Zar “grabbed her suitcase and forged passport and left her family behind,” moving around Poland for the next three years as a Roman Catholic named Wanda Gajda.

“When an SS commander summoned her to his office for questioning, she felt certain that it was the end. She answered his queries, telling about her experience as a nurse and how she had learned to speak German fluently. Several days later, she was introduced to the commander’s wife. The encounter she had feared turned out to be a job interview. She spent the final years of the war as her father had advised, hiding in plain sight in the home of a Nazi commander as ‘Fräulein Wanda.’”

After the war, she married her teenage sweetheart, a concentration camp survivor. They lived in Poland before moving to the U.S. (where they shortened their last name to Zar).  Before that move, she again had to respond to bigotry.

“When violence broke out against Jewish refugees in the Polish city of Kielce, Zar and her husband decided it was time to leave. They helped smuggle 139 Jewish refugee children with them through Czechoslovakia and into southern Germany, where they helped set up a school run by the International Refugee Organization and the United States Army.”

In that school she taught the children of their Jewish heritage. Many were later resettled in Israel, aboard the famous refugee ship Exodus.  After moving to South Bend, Indiana, Zar continued her life of service and wrote a memoir, “In the Mouth of the Wolf.”  Published in 1983, the book won the Association of Jewish Libraries’ Book Award and is taught in schools across the United States.

Rose Zar

Rose Zar (courtesy of Howard Zar)

Zar’s co-author recalls her saying,

“Of course we must talk, we must tell the stories. Otherwise, they will be forgotten and the enemies will have won. I must talk about it. It is my duty to talk about it. If I don’t tell my story, who will?”

The conventional wisdom is that leaders must be charismatic and eloquent. That is certainly one type of leadership. But as Rose Zar’s story shows, there are extraordinary people hiding in plain sight who lead through perseverance and inner strength.  It reminds me of the words of President Obama as he was celebrating the creation of the Pullman National Monument in Chicago.  He said this place should be saved so that children in the neighborhood—as well as around the world—could see and learn that “extraordinary people can come from ordinary places.”

It gives me hope that I know of exceptional stories of life and leadership from colleagues who may not have the strong personality to stand out in a crowded room. They include Peace Corps volunteers. Writers and poets. Social workers. Teachers. You probably know similar individuals who, because of their life experiences or skills developed over the years, lead in the unconventional sense.

Challenges from mundane to horrific will be with us forever.  To respond, consider the ordinary.  Look in plain sight.  What you might find to emulate—as seen in the life and story of Rose Zar—could well be extraordinary.

More to come…

DJB

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