Why Old Wisdom Matters

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Reading Time: 2 minutes

As a result of the kind of serendipity that Twitter at its best can bring, I found myself this morning reading an article titled “A Zero-Math Introduction to Markov Chain Monte Carlo Methods.” Heady stuff to start the day, I know. Here’s the opening paragraph that greeted me after I clicked:

For many of us, Bayesian statistics is voodoo magic at best, or completely subjective nonsense at worst. Among the trademarks of the Bayesian approach, Markov chain Monte Carlo methods are especially mysterious. They’re math-heavy and computationally expensive procedures for sure, but the basic reasoning behind them, like so much else in data science, can be made intuitive. That is my goal here.

I know what you’re thinking, and it’s exactly what I was thinking at that point too:

Right?

The article had lots of charts, and reminded me of Nassim Taleb’s insightful book, Fooled by Randomness, so I pressed on. What has me mentioning all of this now (because I know you’re asking yourself…) is this:

That is an example of a Galton Board, which is a device named for the 19th Century English scientist Sir Francis Galton. Through its use of balls, pegs, slots and the resulting bell curve at the bottom, this simple contraption elegantly illustrates a counter-intuitive fact of life:

At scale, seemingly independent and randomly occurring events conform to a discernible pattern over time.

This is why the events of human history appear cyclical, whether it is the rise and fall of empires, the growth and recession cycles of economies, or the “hype cycle” of new technologies. It is also why large scale human behavior can be charted and predicted (hello Big Data!) even as individual human behavior is impossible to predict with any more accuracy than random chance. The truth of the aphorism “those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it” is not due to some fatalistic determinism running the universe. Instead, it is in the recognition that history tends to repeat its patterns, and will continue to do so without intentional intervention. Think of George Santayana’s quote as an invitation to interfere with the way history’s Galton Board works.

This fact of life is why old wisdom matters. Reading the insights of those who walked before us is valuable even though the circumstances of their lives were so different because the pattern of life they dealt with may be the same one we are facing now. This is why the Old Testament is worth reading even though its setting is a pre-modern, patriarchal culture very different from our own. This is why the philosophies of Aristotle, the meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and the speeches of Frederick Douglass are worth reading. It is even why reading about corporate organizational leadership from the prehistoric days of 1982 is still worth doing.

New ideas are always needed, and breaking away from the straight jacket of conventional thought is a noble endeavor. But, let us not forget the value of old learnings. While the particulars of this modern life are galactically different from the ones faced by those who came ages before us, the patterns of their lives and ours are not so different.

Accountability: A Postscript

Lance Accountability, Discipline Leave a Comment

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Last week I wrote about the challenges of keeping myself on task towards my goal of writing a book without the external expectations of a boss or a team to answer to. I ended that post with this:

I could say more on this topic. In fact, when I started this post, I intended to. But, none of these 600-plus words will count towards my daily writing goal, so I’ve got to end this post here and get to work. I have an accountability email to send out later today.

After hitting “Publish” on that post in order to get to work, here’s how many words I typed towards hitting that daily goal I had just referenced:

Embarrassing.

As I sat down to send my email to my accountability partners — Ryan and Greg — I attempted to mitigate my shame by serving up my excuse with a side of humor and a dash of blame shifting:

It was Ryan who challenged me to get back into the habit of posting here once a week on a set schedule, so as to work the muscle required for writing on a deadline. So, you see, it’s kinda his fault that I wrote last week’s blog post but didn’t put down any words towards my book-writing goal.

Here is what I got in response from The Learning Leader:

… and here’s a live look-in at me reading that email:

(For the record: that’s me on the right…)

Accountability is not for the feint of heart, y’all.

Of course it takes some guts to be vulnerable and make yourself accountable to someone else for efforts and behaviors you need to be doing. Handing someone the keys to the emotional control panel whose buttons can trigger things like embarrassment and shame is a big deal and fraught with anxiety.

But it takes guts just as well to agree to be that source of accountability for someone else. Giving honest feedback and asking the tough questions that hold people accountable like Ryan did in that email is no easy task. To be so direct in making another person confront their own responsibility for failing to meet the expectations they have set for themselves is to flirt with conflict. And, let’s face it: Twitter and Facebook notwithstanding, most people do not relish interpersonal conflict. To avoid it, most of us use passive aggressiveness and codependency to make a point or keep the peace while avoiding direct confrontation.

But, being uncomfortable in the moment is so worth it. Straight talk cuts through the BS and opens up the conversation to the truth. In the context of the discipline of accountability, that truth is not just the reasons for failing to live up to the standard. It is also the light that illuminates the path forward to the productivity and success that was the whole point to begin with.

Yes, it felt like a punch in the talk hole when I got that email. But, that’s exactly what I needed to push me beyond viewing accountability as simply a brain-hack-game to trick myself into being more productive. That digital slap and splash of cold water forced me to treat accountability as a serious effort to accomplish a serious work. Because, if it’s not really a serious work you’re trying to get done, it’s not worth someone else’s time to hold you accountable for it.

The Accounting of Discipline

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Reading Time: 3 minutes

It has now been a solid 7 weeks since my last day of work in Corporate America. With the distraction of the holidays behind me and the kids now back in school, I’m left to face a stark realization: without the external expectations of others, I’m an unproductive mess.

Now, this lack of doing things on my part is not due to having a lack of things to do. While attending this year’s TEDxDayton event working as a speaker’s mentor, I was hit with a moment of inspiration: an idea for a book to write. Less than a week later, by virtue of getting laid off, I was given the gift of a period of paid time off with which to focus on doing just that — writing said book. Simple, right? Big stuff happens when we have a great idea and the opportunity to do something about it, right?

Right??

Yeah, no.

An idea and opportunity I now have. It’s the “doing” that requires sustained effort, focus, and perseverance. In other words: discipline. It has been humbling to see just how little of that precious resource I actually have when stripped of the outside structures of a boss, colleagues, deadlines, and meetings. The only thing standing between me and completely unproductive failure is …me. Of course, that’s also the only thing standing between me and the disciplined effort that leads to a successful execution. So, if acknowledging my weakness is the first step on the path towards recovery, what next to do?

Get accountable.

As accountability author Sam Silverstein succinctly puts it:

You are responsible for things. You are accountable to people.

Thankfully, I have friends who are willing to step into the accountability void. Recently a pair of them asked me how my writing was coming. I could’ve avoided the discomfort and returned conversational serve with the tried and true “Good. It’s hard but coming along.” Or, I could have admitted to a lack of progress but deflected responsibility by throwing out the reasonable excuses of the holiday business between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. Instead, I took a page from Brené Brown’s book and stepped into the vulnerability. I answered by admitting that progress was almost non-existent because without the external expectations of others to answer to, I’m an undisciplined mess.

What came next in response was both an invitation and a dare to be accountable:

“How about you email us every day with whether you hit your day’s word count goal or not?”

With my mouth I said “okay, thanks. I will do that.” … but inside my head, I was like —

That conversation was exactly one week ago. In the time since, I hit and exceeded my goal every day (with the exception of the weekend, when I devoted that work time to another project), and doubled the progress I had made up to that point.

THAT is the power of being accountable to other people.

What are you trying to accomplish in your life that could use the boost of productive output that comes with being accountable to someone else? It could be professional or personal, large or small. It’s January 10th — chances are, any New Year’s resolution you made is already at the shallow breathing stage of its death cycle. You can breathe new life into that commitment if you take the bold step of sharing it with someone in an uncomfortably vulnerable way, and making yourself accountable to them to simply report on how you measured up to your goal each day.

I could say more on this topic. In fact, when I started this post, I intended to. But, none of these 600-plus words will count towards my daily writing goal, so I’ve got to end this post here and get to work. I have an accountability email to send out later today.

Leave Your Mark

Lance Excellence, Integrity, Leadership, People Leave a Comment

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Few things focus the mind on the bigger picture and the important things quite like the process of saying goodbye. Regardless of how or why it occurs, leaving means taking an accounting of what was accomplished and what will be missed. Unless you’re a world class athlete on a final season “farewell tour,” the time for this introspection usually occurs after the departing.

This is where I am at today. Last month my turn to leave came up as the role elimination bell tolled for me: I have been laid off.

Fortunately, the end of my time with my company was neither a total surprise nor acrimonious. I have lost my job before under those kind of circumstances, and there’s no sugar-coating it: that sucked. But this time was much different, and for that, I am grateful.

As I have spent the time since Thanksgiving in reflection, I am reminded of the metaphor of the wake behind a boat that Dr. Henry Cloud uses in his book, Integrity: the Courage to Meet the Demands of Reality. Cloud describes the “two sides to the wake that a leader or someone else leaves when moving through our lives or the life of an organization” thusly:

When a person travels through a few years with an organization … he leaves a “wake” behind in these two areas, task and relationship: What did he accomplish and how did he deal with people? … the wake doesn’t lie and it doesn’t care about excuses. It is what it is. … It is what we leave behind and is our record.”

There is no shortage of focus put on the “task” side of the wake. Entire structures of performance reviews, “KPO’s” (key performance objectives), monthly reporting, dashboards full of metrics and the like are all used by organizations to ensure that the business results are achieved. Though to varying degrees of effectiveness, the leaders and employees of most organizations work within a web of supportive efforts to help them produce a good “task” side of their wake.

But what about the other side? I once heard a business leader describe the process of people leaving the organization as “a hand in the ocean”: once the hand is removed, the surrounding water rushes in to fill the void and — in an instant — it is as if the hand was never there at all. It was a horrifying way to express how the departure of people is overcome by the organization they leave behind, but it is also a view held by too many business leaders.

All too often in corporate life, the focus on relationships and how we impact the people around us is subordinated to the myriad of business tasks at hand, and thus largely ignored. Until it’s time to leave, of course. But, by then, it’s too late to change the way the people around us would answer Dr. Cloud’s question about how they experienced that side of our wake:

Are a lot of people out there water-skiing on the wake, smiling, having a great time for our having “moved through their lives”? Or, are they out there bobbing for air, bleeding, and left wounded as shark bait? … Did they consider it a blessing that they were associated with you, or a curse?

Here are three challenges to undertake now, long before your time to leave arrives, in order to make your wake a “blessing” for those who will be left in it:

1) Be True — leave the heavily massaged messaging and the carefully worded “positioning” to your marketing efforts. Speak plainly to the people you work with and on behalf of. Do not overhype a challenge to try to manipulate “urgency,” and do not sugarcoat bad news in order to avoid dealing with the feelings of anxiety it can stir up (both in you as well as in your people). It has been said that honesty is making your words match with reality, while integrity is making your reality match your words. Do both.

2) Be Brave — The default inertia of power in an organization is to flow downhill. No matter how much power and authority a person may have, the natural tendency is to exercise that power down, on behalf of the person above. Find ways to change that. Use the organizational power you have to stick your neck out on behalf of the people below you who can’t. Those with the most expensive armor are the ones who should be serving as human shields, not hiding behind them.

3) Be Real — Treat the people around you with dignity as people and not merely as avatars for their titles and salaries or their outputs and deliverables. And, most importantly, don’t allow others to treat you any differently. Everyone in the organization, regardless of rank or responsibility, processes both oxygen and emotions in the same fundamental ways that you do. Be neither in awe of those “above” you nor indifferent to those “below.” Serve as a beacon of healthy perspective in the cluttered atmosphere of office politics and performance stress.

Do these things even as you do the task-work of accomplishing the organizations’ mission and goals, and you will achieve something far more lasting than just “results.” You will have left a positive impact on others in a way that can reverberate far into the future.

Why Meghan Markle’s “Draw Your Own Box” Is Important Beyond Race

Lance Creativity, Fear, Forbes, Ideas, People Leave a Comment

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Originally posted at Forbes.com

Yesterday a friend of mine who is the mother of bi-racial kids shared on Facebook the story of Meghan Markle, the bi-racial actress now engaged to Britain’s Prince Harry. In the post, Markle recounted the advice her father had imparted to her as a 7th grader when she struggled with what racial box to check on a required form at school. Markle wrote about this in an article for Elle Magazine in 2015:

Fast-forward to the seventh grade … There was a mandatory census I had to complete in my English class – you had to check one of the boxes to indicate your ethnicity: white, black, Hispanic or Asian. There I was (my curly hair, my freckled face, my pale skin, my mixed race) looking down at these boxes, not wanting to mess up, but not knowing what to do. You could only choose one, but that would be to choose one parent over the other – and one half of myself over the other. My teacher told me to check the box for Caucasian. ‘Because that’s how you look, Meghan,’ she said. I put down my pen. Not as an act of defiance, but rather a symptom of my confusion. I couldn’t bring myself to do that, to picture the pit-in-her-belly sadness my mother would feel if she were to find out. So, I didn’t tick a box. I left my identity blank – a question mark, an absolute incomplete – much like how I felt.

When I went home that night, I told my dad what had happened. He said the words that have always stayed with me: “If that happens again, you draw your own box.”

This piercing bit of wisdom taught 7th grade Meghan a lesson that has clearly stayed with her and impacted how her life unfolded: that her individuality was more important than her conformity , and that she should boldly do what it takes — including breaking some rules and expectations — to preserve that individuality.

The value of this advice goes far beyond the world of racial identity and expectations. Standardization and homogenization work great for industrial processes and interstate commerce infrastructure, but not so much when it comes to human beings. Todd Rose’s The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness is a great book detailing the value of deviating from the norm. Whether it is how you deal with adversity or how you manage your career, being You is better than just being what others expect you to be . This is true even when those expectations are not, in and of themselves, bad.

Here are a couple examples of what it looks like to draw your own box instead of just checking one of the boxes others expect you to in life:

Facing Cancer

I have several friends in my life who have had to face the reality of having cancer, most often woman facing breast cancer. It has been inspiring to watch women like my friends Jaimee, Michelle, Sherri, Carla and others embrace the fight they faced and use that framework as fuel to walk the road that lay before them.

Recently, my close-as-a-brother cousin, Chris, was diagnosed with a most aggressive form of Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma (Stage 2B). This terrible discovery came soon after Chris completed his 64-day pilgrimage across the French Pyrenees and culminating in the Camino de Santiago. As Chris processed this shocking news, he found that the “fight it” framework just didn’t fit with who he is. In his words, as delivered in his video blog —

And I said “What is my role in all this?” And it’s just to enjoy it … to see the beauty in it every day and  enjoy the walk. … Please don’t text me things about “We’re gonna fight this” or “You’re gonna fight this” or anything that has to do with fighting. That’s not me. I’m not confrontational on this. I appreciate those people that need to have that mentality when they want to do that, but for me, that’s not how I’m approaching this. For me, I’m approaching this as: I’m lovin’ it. I’m lovin’ what it is.

For Chris, his having cancer isn’t a fight; it is just another camino, one for which his first camino unexpectedly helped prepare him to walk. I must admit that it was a bit jarring to hear the closest person I have to a brother not embrace the ethos of “fighting cancer.” That’s what we expect people to say and do when they are facing cancer. But, that’s okay: Chris is drawing his own box.

Career

A friend of mine recently left her GM role at a major international corporation. With an impressive resume and P&L responsibility for hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, Dustyn wasn’t just ascending the corporate ladder towards a C-suite gig in the future — she was cruising up the corporate escalator. But then she discovered something surprising: she wasn’t very happy. In spite of all the cultural expectations about what a person — especially a women! — should do with that career trajectory before her, Dustyn made a surprising decision. She left and joined the leadership team of a much smaller, much newer, less established company. She took less pay and more risk, foregoing the expected path of someone in her position.

Now, Dustyn is working in the fine arts space at Artsy.net, and simply checking the expected boxes is a thing of the past. Dustyn is drawing her own box.

My Turn

Meghan Markle’s story resonated with me because it reminds me of the task before me as well. As anyone who knows me or has seen my TEDx talk knows, my first career as a prosecutor became the box by which I checked who I was as a person. Then, a surprising opportunity found me out of the blue, taking me into an entirely different career as an executive with a large, mulit-national corporation. Now, after five and half years of checking that box, my time there has ended as it does for so many in Corporate America: I’ve been laid off.

In the aftermath of this new development, the questions come to me from both others as well as inside my own head: what am I going to do now? Do I return to my first career, where I can resume checking the “prosecutor” career box? Do I find a new job with a new company where I can continue checking the box of “business executive”?

There are sound reasons why I should do one or the other of these things. That’s how expectations work: they are often well intentioned and soundly reasoned, after all. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can all treat expectations like Meghan, face adversity like Chris, and chart our own course for the careers we want like Dustyn. I know that what I aim to do. I am going to pick up my career drawing pencil, find an empty spot in the margin of my life’s plan, take a stab at drawing my own box instead.