Interview: Steven Kotler

After reading The Rise of Superman I had the opportunity to catch up with Steven Kotler via telephone to learn about all of the projects that he’s got going on to help more people get flow more often. Here’s some of what he had to say.

When you’re talking to an expert on the state of flow the question of how to get more flow in your life seems obvious. Kotler’s response was clear. “I’ve eliminated everything in my life which doesn’t trigger flow.” For Kotler that means focusing on a few things.

Tapping into Altruism, or the Helper’s High, Steven and his wife run a dog sanctuary where they help rehabilitate dogs. Kotler describes it as one of the best ways to generate flow long-term and credits Allan Luks with the term Helper’s High.

Next for Kotler is his writing schedule. Crawling out of bed at 4AM every morning without fail he boots up his computer and his brain just enough to attempt to coax flow as the first thing he does. Writing for Kotler doesn’t always fall into flow but he continues to create the optimal conditions for it to happen. That means turning off distractions like email and the phone. Delving into the solitude of writing before his prefrontal cortex is fully awake he’s trying to get a rolling start on the day.

However, leveraging his deep knowledge of flow he creates a feedback loop with a staffer who reads his writing of the morning to provide feedback on tone, attitude, and interest. This is the grist for the mill that drives “immediate feedback.”

Physical activity and embodiment is another key trigger for Kotler who hikes the dogs through the mountains, goes to the gym, and hurls himself down mountains on skis or a bike regularly. This level of activity is risky as he admits to having been taken out of the game for several months this year due to injuries.

When I asked Kotler what he does when he struggles to get into flow with writing he admitted to having his personal list of things that he can do to get into flow. He also shared that he believes that there are primary flow blockers for him for writing. The first problem is insufficient research. Kotler reinforced this point more directly “I don’t believe my own bullshit yet.” I know how he feels. There’s a point where you know a lot of things and you’ve done a lot of research but it still hasn’t resonated yet.

Second, Kotler explains, that he doesn’t have his starts and endings yet. The most powerful paragraph in writing isn’t the last paragraph that summarizes the great insight that you’ve created. The most powerful paragraph in writing is how you pull the reader into the desire to learn. Endings are, of course, where you want to get to. While the end seems easy, I can say in my writing getting a crystal clear picture of the take away that you want someone to get from a paragraph or section can be elusive. You can know you want them to understand the feeling of flow and not understand exactly what part of that feeling to convey first.

Third, Kotler explains that he hasn’t gotten the style for the story yet. As a great storyteller, Kotler finds a way to tell stories that are compelling. Whether it’s from the point of view of where the athlete is going to land or from the twitchy, anxious feeling leading up to their downhill run, or the inner monologue as they’re slogging through the snow to get to the peak before the run. Every story has a way to be told and Kotler’s going to find it.

What keeps Kotler going is something called grit. “You can knock me down but I’m going to keep getting up because that’s what I do” says Kotler about his persistence. He explains “I’ve succeeded at everything that I’ve done, except those things that I’ve pulled the plug on too early.” Kotler broke grit down into three levels.

First, there’s the “Do it no matter what.” This might be getting back on the horse after you’ve been thrown or getting back in the arena after you’ve been defeated. We agreed that while this is necessary for grit it wasn’t all that was necessary. (If you’re interested in grit you may want to see my review of How Children Succeed.)

Second, thought control is essential. Left to their own devices thoughts will spiral out of control. If you can’t keep them in check or if you can’t recover you won’t be able to stay in the game long term. Eventually you’ll grow weary. (See Dialogue for a conversation about how Akita master Richard Moon speaks of balance and recovery.)

Third, is how to achieve flow when the conditions are hard? Kotler admits this is a tough nut to crack. In my world I share an office with my administrative assistant and my developer. While any of us can go to the studio if we need quiet time, often we’re all working together in the same room seeking out flow. Shared space isn’t ideal to individual flow. We make it work through shared understanding that we don’t purposefully interrupt each other. We also use ear buds to block out the standard movement sounds of the others. However, my hacks for changing the environment to improve flow only work for the specific environment here. Like Kotler I struggle to generate flow while traveling and in areas of my life where flow isn’t encouraged.

Kotler and I wandered a bit off the straight and narrow for flow as we talked about the Internet of Things and how it would begin to suck up bandwidth on the Internet. We’re both excited that the technology for sensors is getting better and is making opportunities to monitor human states easier and creating more data for accessing how much time people spend in flow – and thereby giving us clues how to create more flow and to make it deeper for everyone – but starting with Kotler and I.

If you’ve not checked out any of the projects Kotler has been working on to drive more flow into everyone’s lives, check out the Flow Genome Project or check out his personal site.


Book Review-The Rise of Superman

Ultimate human performance, peak performance, optimal performance, and other terms have been used to describe people operating at the limits of what we are capable of doing. Research and broken records have demonstrated that our long standing beliefs about the limits of the human body are incorrect and are limiting. In The Rise of Superman Steven Kotler takes us on a walk through action-adventure sports to see how athletes are able to transcend previously believed limits and perform amazing feats never before possible. The road to these super human feats isn’t evolution, the road is a mental state called flow.

What we believe are our limits aren’t really our limits. Most perceived limits are only the capacity that we’re able to access. Vladimir Zatsiorsky, a kinesiologist at Penn State says that the average person can access about 65% of their real total strength. Trained athletes can access perhaps 80% of the real biological limits of their strength. If in strength we can only access 80% of our capacity, then how much of our other capacities do we use? What we learn from flow and The Rise of Superman is that what we believed were limits may just be speedbumps.

What is Flow?

Flow has been known for centuries by multiple names but its current name – flow – was provided by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I’ve written about his work before in my review of Finding Flow. Flow is an operating state of peak performance where things just seem to flow together. Flow is the balance of challenge and skill and in this state many things become less important. People fail to eat, sleep, or take care of other bodily needs. Time seems to flow rapidly at times – and to nearly stop at others. Time has no hold on flow.

Flow is an intrinsic motivational state. That is once in flow you want to maintain flow because flow is its own reward. Daniel Pink in Drive makes a compelling case for motivation with autonomy, mastery, and purpose. This motivational strategy is a better strategy than traditional “carrots and sticks” motivation when we need to be creative – when we need to transcend existing boundaries. Richard Florida of Carnegie Mellon University is quoted in Theory U as saying that today is “the rise of the creative class.” He estimates that 30% of all employed people belong to this new class. As the percentage of creative, heuristic workers grows, flow provides one important intrinsic motivation to drive growth and performance.

Most of us have experienced flow in our lives – and most remember it well enough to want to be back there. We want to recreate the conditions where our fears and failures faded away as we became hyper productive and intimately involved with what we’re doing. Some people spend much of their lives seeking out the illusive state of flow. Kotler believes that he’s found some of the triggers that can be used to get us back into flow.


Csikszentmihalyi described three conditions for flow: Clear goals, immediate feedback and challenge/skills ratio. Kotler calls these three conditions triggers and adds an additional eight triggers in two additional categories:

  • Psychological (Csikszentmihalyi’s list)
    • Clear goals – Knowing the specific desired outcome
    • Immediate Feedback – The ability to create iterative feedback loops for rapid corrections
    • Challenge/Skills Ratio – Skills just slightly less than the challenge
  • Environmental
    • High Consequences- Perceived danger in the environment
    • Rich Environment – Novelty, unpredictability, and complexity
    • Deep Embodiment – Total physical awareness.
  • Social
    • Familiarity – A common language and culture
    • Blending Egos – A shared identity or lack of competition
    • Sense of Control –Ability to guide challenges through competence and autonomy
    • Close listening – Completely engaged in the present and interacting with others based on now, not preparation
    • Always Say Yes – Additive contributions rather than competitive or negative

I disagree with this Kotler in calling this list triggers. I believe that Csikszentmihalyi’s initial three are conditions – that is they are requirements to be met before one can enter a flow state where I believe that the eight additional items that Kotler provides may be catalysts, I don’t believe they’re conditions or prerequisites.

Clear goals is the first of Csikszentmihalyi’s conditions. This means you have to know the outcome you want to achieve. Whether that’s an article or a book, or a program – clear goals means simply that you have an end in mind. This aligns with the motivational research around autonomy mentioned in Drive. When I’m writing code the goal is often crystal clear with the path to take being not so clear. When I’m writing an article, I often find that I’m not fixed on the endpoint. I know that I want to convey a message but often during the processing of the writing the endpoint changes. The goal in this case is simply to share my experience with other humans and that is clear enough for me.

Immediate feedback is the second condition. In this case the definition of immediate is relative. For the developer the “immediate” feedback might require a recompile and a test run of the data. This is different than a skier who immediately receives feedback from the environment as he’s skiing. Developers often process immediate feedback through the development of their mental models about how the computer will process the instructions. Gary Klein in Sources of Power explained how deeply mental models are embedded into the way we work and the way we make decisions. Sometimes immediate feedback is feedback generated by the mental model that we have developed.

The challenge to skills ratio is Csikszentmihalyi’s final condition and it follows the same pattern of being defined relative to the individual experiencing flow. Certainly the gap between the challenge and the individual’s belief of their skills is essential – however, it’s really about the belief of the person in their skills. If the challenge is perceived to be too great then it will never be attempted. If it’s too little then it will be boring. Getting and keeping the ratio right is what keeps us in flow. If we ever decide the challenge is too great we’ll break out of flow – until we can change the perception of our skills or the perception of the challenge. Similarly if the amount of challenge remains too low for too long we’ll fall out of flow as we’ve no longer got the challenge to sustain the flow state.

Kotler’s additional eight triggers don’t fit these essential conditions. While high consequences will encourage flow state to begin there are many flow states that people enter while writing, developing code, creating art, etc., that don’t require high consequences. They don’t require a rich environment – in fact for a developer a rich environment might inhibit flow because it drives a higher than acceptable perception of challenge. So from my point of view, while the eight additional are triggers – they’re not exactly like Csikszentmihalyi’s original three.

However, many people have found these triggers as gateways into flow. When you’re chasing the impacts of flow, sometimes anything that will point you in the right direction is valuable.

The Impact of Flow

Flow is an immensely productive state. It has surfaced in numerous places in my reading and in general research. Peopleware was the first place I encountered the concept of flow – even though I didn’t include mention of it in my review. Flow and the need for flow has been woven through the writing on best practices for software developers for years. The first edition of Peopleware, for instance, was published in 1987.

McKinsey researched executives that regularly experienced flow and determined they were five times as effective as their non-flow peers. James Slavet of Greylock venture capital called “flow state percentage” – defined as the amount of time employees spend in flow – the “most important management metric for building great innovation teams”

While the state of flow is meaningful enough in and of itself to be desirable the residue – what is left when you’re done with flow – is perhaps more important. The research points to the fact that those who experience flow report greater creativity long after being in flow. Those who have a high amount of flow in their lives tend to be happier than people who don’t experience a large percentage of flow time. Perhaps flow is the answer to happiness that both Daniel Gilbert in Stumbling on Happiness and Johnathan Haidt in The Happiness Hypothesis
were looking for. Maybe it’s a happy place that we can use to escape the world.

Flow as an Escape

It’s no secret that everyone has places where they’re broken. As I mentioned in my review of Chasing the Scream, many of the issues that we see as addiction are really pains bubbling up from inside of the person – getting expressed as an addiction. In truth addicts, whether they’re of the workaholic variety, the alcoholic variety, or illicit drug variety are in their hearts are silencing their inner voices and soothing their pain. They can make the voices and the pain go away for a while. The athletes Kotler interviewed admitted that in the state of Flow they could stop the “ghosts” from following them. “The edge (flow) is the one place that the ghosts can’t follow.” And so on one level the moniker of adrenaline junkie fits. The athletes get hooked not on the adrenaline but on the flow. As Kotler points out most of the so called adrenaline junkies hate the adrenaline but love the flow and will chase it.

Adrenaline is nasty stuff. While it might be necessary for a fight-or-flight world where you might get chased by a lion. In the world we live in today it makes people jumpy. It narrows our focus to whatever the perceived threat is. The impact is more than psychological, it’s physiological – it reduces the body’s immune response (As was discussed in Emotional Intelligence.) This makes sense because the body is primed for a fight that it may or may not win. Why spend energy on long term survival activities when short-term survival is at stake.

Adrenaline then is used to narrow our focus to only those immediate and pressing needs of the moment and yet flow is an expansive state where we’re able to consider many possibilities and where our lateral thinking is dramatically expanded. We’re able to come up with creative solutions to problems. How do we get from narrowed focus to broadened focus? The answer may be in the cycle of flow.

Flow Cycle

Before The Rise of Superman I knew what flow was and I routinely entered it – however, I didn’t have language to describe the entire cycle that I’d go through. The flow cycle starts, as Kotler explains, with struggle. This is the place where you’re facing the challenges and are gearing up for them. Like an airplane that’s struggling to break the speed of sound — things shake. Figuratively the ground rumbles. This state can only be maintained for so long. In the case of the aircraft analogy you’ve either got to get faster than the speed of sound – or not. You can’t stay in this state forever.

The next stage is the release cycle. This is where the struggle still exists but you’re not consumed by it or frustrated by it. Often this is accompanied by a diversion of a walk, another project, or another activity. You need this stage so that your body can get primed to be able to enter flow. You need the relaxation to allow the next stage to happen.

The third and next stage is flow itself which we’ve described extensively here. It’s a wash of neurochemicals and transient hypofrontality that shuts down parts of the frontal lobe. It’s what the adrenaline junkies live for. It’s an extremely productive state – and an extremely expensive state for the body to maintain.

The fourth and final stage is recovery. In this stage you’re coming down from the state of flow and your body is starting the process of recovering from the expenditures of flow. It feels like an unproductive time – but it’s a necessary one.

However, the end result – after recovery – are happier lives. In study after study, those who routinely experience flow are not just more productive. They’re happier and that happiness can last for a long time after the flow state. Csikszentmihalyi’s Finding Flow quoted “You could say that I worked every minute of my life, or you could say with equal justice that I never worked a day.” That’s the power of flow. You don’t feel like it is work and that positive feeling sticks with you.

From Narrow to Broad Focus

It’s the struggle phase of the flow cycle where we get our rush of adrenaline. It’s that stage where we get the energy to kick start the cycle but whereas a natural consequence of the adrenaline our focus narrows. In fact, stress of any kind is known to narrow our focus. It’s one of the reason, as was thoroughly explained in Drive, we can’t always assume that providing incentives will result in better performance.

It’s the release stage that transfers our focus from the narrow to the broad. A wash of nitric oxide is a part of the parasympathetic response that happens when we relax. (For more on the parasympathetic system see The Science of Trust, Hardwiring Happiness, and Emotional Intelligence.) Nitric Oxide is a rapidly released and used neurochemical transmitter which explains why peace can “wash over us.”

With nitric oxide in our system we’ve got the chemical cocktail we need to enter flow. We’ve got adrenaline which has a long half-life (20 minutes or more) providing us with energy for the process and focusing the body’s efforts. As a result it’s possible to shut down parts of the brain resulting in transient hypofrontality. That is parts of our executive function are quite literally shut down.

This is the same kind of energy exchange that adrenaline is known for. Digestion and immune responses are suppressed in order to improve our available energy for fighting or running. Nitric oxide is the rapid response unit for the parasympathetic nervous system signaling that all is well. So with parts of our executive function suppressed we enter a relaxed state. It is this relaxed state that allows us to dramatically broaden our focus and improve lateral thinking.

So we start the cycle of flow by narrowing our focus with struggle and adrenaline. When we’re able to relax we’ve activated the parasympathetic nervous system and we’ve layered nitric oxide on top of the adrenaline and thereby have created a situation where parts of our brain have additional energy available and other areas of our brain – like the area for our inner critic – are shut down.

My Flow Cycle

I’ve chased flow less aggressively than the action-adventure athletes in The Rise of Superman, but I’ve chased it none-the-less. Before I even started my career I was writing computer programs and I can remember the stages. Struggling to design a structure to solve the problem, the release of designing an approach that seems to work, and the flow of banging out the code to build it. The end was mindless watching the compiler compile the code and fixing the inevitable typos and small logic errors.

In writing I saw the same struggle. I’d start dropping concepts on the page. I’d try to order them. I’d struggle with it until a textual flow seemed to emerge. I’d relax and get about the real task of writing. Afterwards I’d shutdown briefly before writing again – I needed time to get ready for the next iteration.

In editing I’d see the cycle too – but it would be different. I’d struggle to get control of my environment to start the process of blocking things out. I’d get into a groove, I’d relax, and enter flow. I can vividly remember a conversation with my girlfriend at the time about how long it took me to respond to her. She asked me a question and according to her it was a full five minutes before I acknowledged or responded to her. Obviously she was patient – but it demonstrated to me that I really did completely lose track of time not just in the long term but in the short term as well.

I still experience flow in these situations but now the most interesting entry into flow is speaking. While Seinfeld may believe that most people at a funeral would rather be in the casket than delivering the eulogy, I love it. While not an extrovert at my core, I enjoy being able to share with so many so quickly. For a typical keynote (or big speech) I’ll get the adrenaline rush. It’s sort of a twitchy feeling where you feel like you want to crawl out of your own skin. Next is me doing self-quieting exercises which candidly are best done with music. When I step on stage and start speaking I rarely think about what I’m saying. I’m completely engrossed in watching the cues from the audience and looking to keep things loving. In a recent keynote at SPTechCon I was told that I pulled out many “voices” and used them during the talk. The voices are impersonations or characterizations of ethnic groups. I had planned one into the talk – an Irish voice. However, apparently several more made it into the talk. I wasn’t aware of it until I was told later.

Equally interesting is that coming off stage from an event like this I’ve got maybe 20 minutes before I need time to shut down and be alone. I need to just sit in quiet or near quiet allowing everything to quiet down and for my energy levels to return. That’s my recovery. It’s my time to reintegrate into the real world where time has meaning again.

My Flow Kickstart

While action-adventure athletes leverage one of Kotler’s triggers to get flow started, for me I’ve found another way. A way that didn’t make sense until I understood the cycle. I start with a bit of biofeedback where I trick my body into a stress response – goosebumps and a higher heart rate. This is a trick I learned a long time ago when I was in bed at the hospital with a kidney infection. I couldn’t really do anything so I started playing with what I could get my body to do.

The next step for me is to play music loud. This causes me to relax and drift into the music. I realize that loud music seems hard to ignore but because it’s familiar patterns I can start to block it out. In that process is the relaxation. It’s soothing to me like the sound of waves crashing on the rocks. The resulting release frequently lands me into flow. I say frequently because there are times when I can’t quite get the sequence right and I continue to struggle with a problem rather than experience flow – but it’s effective for me more than 90% of the time.

Interestingly I don’t seek flow every day or even every week. I will only attempt the kick start when I know that the challenge/skill ratio is right and that I can get the time I need to stay in flow long enough. Very few things are more frustrating for me than having gotten into flow only to be interrupted. I hate losing the feeling.

Wiring and Rewiring

If you can remember when you were first learning to drive you’ll remember the amount of focus it required to drive. It was an all-consuming activity. It required your complete focus to ensure that you didn’t violate a rule or injure persons or property. However, if you’ve been driving for a while you are likely to barely remember how you got from one place to another. Generally the process of driving has been wired into our brains so that we don’t require conscious attention to do it.

Daniel Kahnman in Thinking, Fast and Slow speaks of our two brain systems. System 1 is the automatic system, the one that does its work subconsciously. System 2 is our executive function and the result of our concentration. System 2 can always be fooled by System 1 because System 1 is the one that holds all the data. However, System 2 is the one that programs system 1 – there by leading to a circular causality of how we process information.

Gary Klein in Sources of Power spoke about how fire captains couldn’t explain how they knew the right approach to take to a fire. There wasn’t rational decision making taking place. Instead there was what he called recognition primed decisions where experience had created mental models of the ways that fires worked. The fire captains would simulate the fire with these models and decide the best course of action.

In this way the fire captain’s novel experiences activated system 2 – where they had to think about how to solve the problem. Ultimately the results would be encoded in such a way that it was accessible to System 1 so that future executive function wasn’t required.

So it is that we wire our automatic responses through our world. We see something and it becomes a part of our experience and therefore the default responses that system 1 will use. “When the brain finds a task it needs to solve,” writes Baylor neuroscientist David Eagleman, “it rewires its own circuitry until it can accomplish this task with maximum efficiency.”

The key in rewiring our brains for optimal processing of any situation is creating the experiences necessary to rewire the brain. Kotler quotes Malcom Gladwell from his book Outliers about needing 10,000 hours of practice to become the best. He further challenges the idea that the 10,000 hours has to be deliberate practice failing to see how Shane McConkey’s practice of deliberate quoting him as saying “What I love to do on the hill is find an interesting way to do something fun.” I, on the other hand, take little issue with this. Hidden in Shane’s goal is an unstated one – to become better at what he’s doing so that he can have even more fun.

Anytime that you’re enjoying what you do and are interested in becoming better, you’ve got the opportunity to convert practice (or experience) into mastery. We are, as Carol Dweck says in Mindset, able to change ourselves. If we’re willing to feed ourselves with the right experiences and the right mindset we can wire our brains – or even rewire them. Perhaps it’s in our ability to rewire that we think that we develop a creativity for our world.

Creativity Time

IBM surveyed 1,500 top executives in sixty countries and determined that the most desirable quality of the CEO was creativity. When Partnership for 21st Century Skills – a collection of 250 researchers – looked for the most critical skill that our children need to thrive in the future creativity was the top answer. Creativity is key whether you’re a captain of industry, a craftsman creating something new, or a child trying to survive in a complex and changing world.

However, creating creativity is a challenge. In Creative Confidence we learned about how we’re held back from creativity by voices and expectations. While Creative Confidence gave some tools for becoming more creative and described the barriers, it didn’t create creativity. However, it’s possible that introducing more flow into people’s lives can do this.

Flow introduces a state of transient hypofrontality – reduced executive function. In the process flow shuts down our inner critic. Flow removes the barriers to creativity while also improving lateral thinking. As a result, creativity is boosted.

Equally interesting for me was the research from David Eagleman who found that our sense of time isn’t centralized in one part of the brain but rather is a coordinated activity with many different parts of the brain working together. Why is that interesting? Well, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator includes a Judging-Perceiving dimension that I oversimplify to a definite sense of time. Judging people are on-time. Perceiving people prioritize people and things above time. They’ll lose time in order to connect with people.

If time is an activity that is not centralized then those people who have a strong sense of time have a brain whose natural state is to be communicating across the different regions. Shouldn’t these people be more prone to creativity than their perceiving colleagues? If creativity leans it’s ladder on the wall of lateral thinking, shouldn’t those whose brains are literally wired to connect different regions have an advantage?

Looking Inside the Brain – Electricity

In the desire to understand how we think and how flow works there have been a number of tools that people have used to see what’s happening. One effective way is to watch brain waves with something called an Electroencephalograph or EEG. This relies on a set of sensors placed around the brain which detect the electrical impulses of the brain and record the waves that this electrical activity makes. Here’s a quick listing of the kinds of waves that an EEG finds:

  • Delta – Between 1hz and 3.9hz – An indication of a deep dreamless sleep
  • Theta – Between 4 hz and 7.9 hz – Present in REM sleep, meditation, and during the processing of novel stimuli.
  • Alpha – Between 8hz and 13.9 hz – The brain’s basic resting state
  • Beta – Between 14 and 30 hz – Learning and concentration (low end) or fear and stress (high end)
  • Gamma – Above 30 hz- Present when different parts of the brain are coordinating and binding disparate thoughts

What researchers found is that decision making requires a six-stage cycle involving different brain waves and patterns. One of the characteristics discovered for flow was that people in flow could move fluidly between the stages – they don’t get caught up in any of the stages.

Looking Inside the Brain – Chemistry

However, the brain isn’t an electrical engine. Our brain is an electro-chemical engine. We work as much by our chemistry as our electrical forms so what’s the neurochemistry behind flow? Well, here are the actors:

  • Epinephrine – The kick start into the process is adrenaline or more specifically epinephrine. It powers the system up for the fight-or-flight reaction.
  • Dopamine – Engagement, excitement, and creativity are the way that dopamine shows up on the scene.
  • Norepinephrine – Signals the body to speed the heart rate, trigger a glucagon response from the liver to release energy, and increases respiration the net effect of which is to make energy available in the bloodstream.
  • Endorphins – Relieves pain and increases pleasure. When your brain wants to reward behavior – like sex – this is the first choice.
  • Anandamide – Bliss like the effects of marijuana come from this neurochemical
  • Serotonin – A mood stabilizer which forms the basis of most anti-depressants which are called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)

With the exception of Serotonin all of these neurochemicals are present in flow. Effectively there’s a massive amount of energy in the system through epinephrine and norepinephrine which is harnessed by converting the energy into engagement and creating a positive and blissful state which sets us up for the ability to make decisions without the impact of our inner critic or the focusing effects of stress.

Serotonin which appears on the back end keeps us from falling into a deep hole of depression because of the exhaustion of the other neurochemicals. It’s the mood stabilizer that eases the pain of coming off the high.

Flow as it turns out is always a good trip – unlike some illicit drugs. So at some level chasing flow is much safer than the use of other escapes that we use to cover our pains. However, certainly in the action-adventure sports arena flow has claimed many lives. Living on the edge of human performance it turns out is dangerous business.

Group Flow

When working as an audio engineer for churches I’ve been able to see what group flow looks like. Most of the time when you’re working with a band they’ll be playing the same tune at the same tempo in the same key but they’re not really totally together. There are tricks that we can use to help them stay in time. We can put more bass drum in the monitors so that they get a more precise set of time. We can provide the drummer more of the click track if they tend to drift their timing.

We can even help musicians know when they’re being too aggressive with their instrument. If you have a musician who is pounding the ivory off the top of the keys you can feed them more of the piano to get them to subtly and instinctively reduce the amount they’re pounding on the keys. Similarly if they’re playing too tentatively, you can drop the amount of their own instrument. It’s all subtle and with the goal of helping everyone “get into the groove.”

When that happens, the results are amazing. They don’t need the cues. They’re no longer focused on their own playing. The mechanics of their instrument aren’t being considered. Instead they’re thinking of how the music fits together. They’re not having to hear the bass drum to know where the tempo is. They can feel it.

I have to sit on the periphery of these experiences. I get to help be a catalyst to support the experience but in reality I have very little impact on getting it all together. While I can support getting the band into flow – I don’t in anyway cause it. I do, however, get to see how amazing it feels when it fits together.

There are two distinct things that we’re discussing when we talk about group flow. The first is the situation like the one above where multiple people are entering flow together and are doing something collectively. This is a difficult state to achieve but one that’s powerful.

The second thing that we lump into group flow is the amplification effect of being in a group of like-minded people who are looking to improve their game in the same way that you are. This is where communities of flow junkies are gathered together to feed and support each other in their desires. Whether it’s staying year round at Yosemite at Camp 4 or entrepreneurial incubation centers that are springing up around the country. By creating population density you can amplify the effects of a group of people.

However, the amplification relies upon two things. First, everyone must be encouraging. They’re collaborators on the goal of raising everyone’s level. Richard Hackman in Collaborative Intelligence speaks about how teams should and shouldn’t behave. Though not everyone is employed by a common organization, they should be bound together in a cooperative that makes them a team.

The second factor is that they should be focused on “Yes, and…” Shortly after I took the standup comedy course, I took an improvisation course with Michael Malone. Michael is gifted. He owns a stage unlike any other comedian I’ve ever seen. During our training Michael helped us to understand the rule of “Yes and” in improvisation. When doing a scene you don’t respond with “No it didn’t” – instead you respond with “Yes and…” Improvisation – like life – is about bigger, weirder, and stranger. By responding with “Yes and…” you can move the story line forward instead of freezing it.

If someone says there’s an elephant in the living room the response is and it’s wearing a tutu. This is the kind of amplification effect that drives an entire group of people forward. This is group flow of a different kind. It’s a group of folks entering their own individual flow more frequently with more productive results.

Flow Requires Action

Kotler insists that flow requires action. It’s not about dry research. It’s about doing something. I agree. Whether the action is small or large you have to do something. Maybe you should reach out and grab The Rise of Superman so you can start finding your way to flow more often.


Searching for Significance

Everyone is searching for significance, a way to leave their mark on the world. Sometimes this drive is focused positively and we have folks like Gandhi and Mother Theresa, however, much more frequently we see the results of this search surface in misguided attempts which are destructive rather than constructive. It’s well known that it’s easier to destroy rather than create. Sometimes the desire to be significant is released in a destructive rather than a constructive way.


During a trip to the San Diego Zoo my wife and I discovered graffiti – embedded into the bamboo that is growing in the park and had to ask “Why?” The answer is of course a search for significance. Many of the folks wandering the park, particularly those younger folks who’ve not yet found their path in life, want to be significant somehow. They want to find their 15 minutes of fame (and perhaps take more than 15 minutes). When you don’t know what you want to do with your life and you don’t know how to get your 15 minutes of fame it’s easy enough to pull out a pocket knife or a sharpie and carve your name into a plant or write on a rock. While Graffiti is misguided, it comes from an internal drive to be significant.

The concept of Graffiti is simple. You quite literally leave your mark on something for years to come. However, the problem comes with whether you’re leaving your mark in a positive or negative way. I doubt that any of the “art work” above is artwork that people would desire to have framed and hanging on their wall. There’s little believe on my part that the work here represents the best artistry that the person is capable of. The adrenaline rush of being caught and the rush to complete their work quite likely caused them to not produce their best work – but still they persisted in their plan to create a lasting impression on something – anything – even if the mark wasn’t their best work.

The Meaning of Significance

My world has been gratefully self-documenting. Having author credit on 25 books has a built in documentation system. My contributions are recorded in the front of the book and cataloged with ISBN numbers. However, does the fact that I have author credit on one book or 25 books mean that I’m significant. This is the primary “rub” of significance. That is how you ascribe significance. Few of us are going to be the president of the United States. Few are going to have missions like Mother Theresa or Gandhi or even Junípero Serra who started 21 missions up the coast of California. Ultimately the meaning of significance is self-defined.

As I mentioned in my review of Choice Theory, Chris Argyris created a model called the Ladder of Inference where we filter information and ascribe meaning to it. Being significant is all about how your belief about whether you’re significant or not.


Book Review-Find Your Courage: 12 Acts for Becoming Fearless at Work and In Life

I used to modify the serenity prayer to swap the word strength for courage because I rarely found myself lacking the courage to change the things that I can. (The serenity prayer starts: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.) In fact, I spend my time changing things that seem to need to be changed. I did, however, frequently find myself exhausted by the process. So reading a book on courage was a bit weird. I found that many of the things in the book weren’t new – but they were refreshing to read. Find Your Courage was a journey in what courage is – and how to be more courageous.

Courage in the Moment, In Relationship, and With Yourself

Sometimes when folks think about courage they think about charging into a burning building to save a baby from a fire. However, how many of us are going to be confronted with that situation? Hopefully there won’t be that many of us. However, we’re faced with dozens of opportunities each day to be courageous. Being courageous is about the moment-to-moment decisions we make to be honest, to be vulnerable, and to be our real selves. (See Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy for more about vulnerability requiring courage.) Courage is about telling folks how you feel even when it will be unpopular. Courage is about being real.

Another way to say this is that courage is living wholeheartedly. It’s about taking action even in the presence of fear. Everyone has fear. It’s not that courageous people have no fear it’s that they don’t allow fear to get in the way of them doing the things that need to be done. It’s about living a life that’s aligned with your core beliefs.

Courageous people have grit and perseverance. When a horse throws them off they get up and get back on – not because they didn’t feel the fall – but because riding the horse is what needs to happen – for them and the horse.

I posted separately my thoughts about How to Be Yourself. It’s a guide to the first part of being courageous – knowing who you are and living who you are. While this is a great start for some of what Find your Courage shares, it’s not the complete story.

The Meaning (Fear Of) Failure

So what does failing mean to you? Is failure OK – or is it a death sentence? Do you believe that you will become a failure – in your own eyes or in someone else’s – if you fail? Does failure threaten your value as a person? Does failure threaten your ability to survive? What if failure was no big deal? What if failure was just like walking up to a bowling alley and not getting a strike? Few people would blink if they didn’t get a strike on every frame in bowling but if your bar is set on a perfect 300 then anything less is a failure.

Sometimes failure is about the bar you set – the standard – and sometimes it’s about the persistence, just continuing to try until you succeed. If you look back at any successful person, you’ll probably find that they’ve failed more than others. They’ve failed to meet their own expectations – and the expectations of others. If you want to soar, you have to be willing to fall out of a few trees.

In Schools without Failure Glasser writes that he believes that we shouldn’t be inflicting the label of failure on our students that we should be creating ways for them to be successful. This isn’t failure-less schools in the sense that everyone gets a participation award but rather it’s about helping students accept failure. It’s trying to protect Creative Confidence and ensure that we don’t become debilitated by our fears.

Setting High Standards

Those who are courageous dream big. They dream about dreams that put a ding in the universe (aka Steve Jobs). Having high standards means that you’ll fail more often than you succeed. Steve Jobs – for instance, failed with the NEXT computer – at least commercially. However, that didn’t stop him. He went back to Apple and returned the company to a position of respect in the computer community. His high standards – and awareness of user experience – fueled his failures but also created some enormous successes.

The higher your standards the more frequently you’re going to miss the mark. The more perseverance you’ll need to develop. How Children Succeed calls this perseverance grit. Emotional Intelligence
calls it persistence and unflappability.

Patiently Persistent

How many times do you have to fail before you succeed? Embedded into this question is hope and determination. Failure is simply the path to success. It’s never the destination and rarely a stopping point. As the saying goes “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” When Thomas Edison – the Wizard of Menlo Park – set out to create an electric light most people thought he was crazy. He knew it was possible but didn’t know how to do it.

For Edison it was failure after failure after failure. He’s often quoted as having failed at creating a light bulb over 1,000 times. We all know that he ultimately succeeded. However, most people don’t know that he was learning something with each failure. He was consulting with top experts in related fields. He himself learned a great deal about how gas lights worked. He knew that if he would keep at it, he would ultimately get what he wanted.

While most folks remember the Wizard of Menlo Park they don’t realize that not everything that he invented was a commercial success. He did in fact have commercial failures as well. He created the invention but wasn’t able to sell enough of them. He didn’t stop inventing because he couldn’t sell his first invention – an electric vote recorder.

Perhaps perseverance is fine for Thomas Edison but what about for you and me? We tend to hear and believe in overnight success stories. We think that Starbucks and Wal-Mart and Chick-Fil-A burst on the scene in a moment. They didn’t have their setbacks, failures, and obscurities. However, the actual results are very different than what we believe.

Starbucks was a maker of coffee equipment until Schultz took the helm and started selling coffee directly. Wal-Mart was Sam Walton’s five and dime in rural Arkansas until the momentum eventually kicked in and elevated them to national status. Chick-Fil-A was the outcome of the Dwarf Grill restaurant run by S. Truett Cathy until it started rapid expansion. Dwarf House was started in 1946.

But those are organizations that have been successful, what about people? As Malcom Gladwell cataloged in Outliers, there are many people who became successful only after they had put in their time with 10,000 hours of practice. (Based on research by Anders Ericsson.) Howard Gartner studied extraordinary people for his book Extraordinary Minds. He found that they reframed failure as a way to learn.

Being Responsive

If you want to consider what it means to be responsive to the world that surrounds you perhaps you should watch the infamous last lecture series presentation by Randy Pausch titled “Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.” You see Carnegie Mellon University had a lecture series that was intended to be what professors wanted to leave to the world – their last lecture. However, Randy, a month before presenting his lecture was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer – so this was quite literally his last lecture. Though they changed the name of the lecture series, the lecture he gave was spot on and became an Internet sensation. Early on in the presentation he comments about how he cannot change his cancer, he can – however, choose his response to it. He’s careful to point out that he’s not in denial – he’s clear that he’s got a terminal illness and he knows what that means. (Check out my review of On Death and Dying for the stages of grief someone goes through related to death.) The message – so poignantly delivered – is that whatever life deals to us we can’t change. We can only change how we respond to it. Whether we decide to choose positive and life-giving responses (even if you’re dying) or whether you choose responses that subtract and take away from what you have and what is remaining.

Normally we’re not confronted with situations where we must face our own mortality. However, even in these cases, we must choose how we’re going to respond. (Remember that choosing not to respond is itself a response.)

Journey not destination

When will you know that you’re truly courageous? Well in truth you’ll never know that completely. Even though I feel like I live most of my life in a way that others would describe as courageous, I know there are times when I cannot muster the courage to admit a fault, or to apologize to someone that I’ve wronged. So I’ve come to realize for me, in my life, that being courageous isn’t a destination. It’s not some place that I arrive at. It is instead a journey that I’m on to become more courageous each day. I’m learning how to be courageous in times that I would normally not be courageous. Even though I opened with the idea that I’m normally courageous I have to acknowledge that there are times when I’m not courageous at all. I’m far from it.

You see, courage is an active verb. Courage is mostly about the doing. Whether you succeed or fail isn’t the point. Even when being courageous is letting things happen to you – courage is about making the conscious decision to live out your beliefs – to be the person that you’ve decided that you want to be.

Predicting the Future

Crystal balls aren’t clear. Tarot cards have never spoken to me. I’m not even sure how people would read tea leaves – and all I see on my palms are wrinkles. In short the ways that the world believes that you can predict the future don’t work for me. However, there is one way that does work. That is that you can most accurately predict the future when you’re the one who is making the future. When you create the future you’ve in essence already predicted it. You’ve already had the vision – no matter how cloudy – in your mind’s eye before it becomes reality.

We all want to predict the future. There’s a certain fear about the future. Will I be happy? Will I continue to make enough money for the family to live – and enjoy themselves? Will I continue to love my spouse? Will my children be successful? There are so many future worries. There is so much potential for anxiety. So how does one calm their fears about the future? The answer is that they create it. They seize the day. They prepare for tomorrow. The courage here is that once you decide that you’re going to predict – and make the future – you become responsible for it. You’re responsible for your own destiny. There’s no mythical god to praise or blame. There’s no point in blaming circumstances. You’re predicting the future because you’re making it.

Hallmarks of Openhearted People

Find Your Courage speaks of the hallmarks of openhearted people as:

  • Candor. They can share their successes and failures, their joy and heartache, and their temptations and weaknesses openly.
  • Honesty. They have integrity in who they are and in how they live their lives. They are sincere in what they say.
  • Generosity. They are wonderful givers.
  • Affection. They are able to express their love freely.
  • Depth. They think and feel deeply because they do not repress their emotions.
  • Joy. They have a huge capacity for joy and, therefore, can sometimes be childlike (as distinct from childish), because they show so much delight in so many things.
  • Gratitude. Openhearted people embrace an abiding sense of gratitude.
  • Courage. This goes without saying. Courage comes from the same place as love—from the heart.

Courageous Anger

To be courageous you have to express your whole self. However, what if your “whole self” is angry? What if your sense of self is angry? In short, so what? While anger is generally not socially acceptable, it is a valid and important emotion. Anger can be the catalyst to get things done. Johnathan Haidt’s model of the Rider-Elephant-Path from The Happiness Hypothesis is perhaps the most potent example of this. If you want to get something done, talk to the elephant. It’s the elephant that will get things done.

Expressing anger in a constructive rather than a destructive way leads us to the thoughts of the Dali Lama and Paul Ekman in their conversations recorded in Emotional Awareness. Buddhists, they explain, see emotions as afflictive and non-afflictive. In western cultures this is most frequently described as destructive and non-destructive emotions. The challenge is that the view of what is afflictive and non-afflictive is situationally contingent. That is if the emotion is appropriate to the conditions and realistic. Anger isn’t itself afflictive. Anger is only afflictive (destructive) when it is out of proportion.

We’ve learned that people don’t like receiving our anger. We’ve learned that we should suppress or hide it. However, there are some kinds of anger such as the anger one feels when others are harmed that can be appropriate.

Learning to push past the expectation that anger is bad to a point of acceptance that it can be good – and can be good to express – is itself an act of courage.

Humility and Courage

My favorite definition of humility comes from Humilitas. It says that humility is “power held in service to others.” That is that whatever power I have – whether internal or external, directly or through influence – should serve others. This contrasts with the typical Western cultural view that humility is a lack of self-confidence.

A common criticism of those who are living courageously is that they’re arrogant. That is that they don’t consider or care for other people or perhaps they believe too strongly in their own righteousness. However, this is often misguided. Often courageous people are willing to speak passionately about their beliefs – not out of lack of respect for others but for respect for themselves. The line between self-confidence (courage) and arrogance is razor thin – and measured in the eye of the beholder.

In Emotional Awareness the Dali Lama addresses humility and courage by saying that it’s wisdom that reconciles the two. That is that wisdom helps you to know how to speak your truth and when to allow others to believe their truth.

Lost Without a Dream

What are your great life dreams? What are the dreams that you gave up so long ago that you barely remember you had them? Did you want to be a ballerina or an astronaut? Did you want to be a rock star or a captain of industry? Where did these dreams go?

The dreams we dream at night might be passing fancies or distorted of the echoes of the day we had. However, the dreams of our heart should be protected. Dreams are goals, places that we want to end up in our lives. Ideally these dreams are the landmark at the end of the road. They’re a place for us to head to.

Without a land mark to head to – a vision of what we want – how possible is it to get where we want to go? “If you don’t know where you want to go any road will take you there” said the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz.

Success Principles implored us to dream bigger because big dreams attract big people. The Innovator’s DNA quotes Steve Jobs as saying “dream bigger.”

Dreams can pull us into being courageous when we might not otherwise be. They can fuel our growth and continued progress. Dreams are achievable. We must convince ourselves of this fact. We must find a way to break the dream down into meaningful steps. As Extreme Productivity pointed out we may not be able to directly plan our path forward, we do know how to take steps that move us towards our dreams – or that make us more prepared for them to happen.

Being Better One Day at a Time

I’ve spoken about what Maxwell calls the Power of Mo’ – Momentum that is. It’s what happens when you build into a system just a little more over and over and over again. Albert Einstein said that “Compound interest is the eighth natural wonder of the world and the most powerful thing I have ever encountered.” That’s momentum when building bit-by-bit on top of the existing money created powerful results. Wayne Dyer said “True nobility isn’t about being better than anybody else, but about being better than you used to be.” We can leverage the power of momentum in our lives by striving each day to be just a little better than we were the day before.

The amazing thing about a one-day-at-a-time approach is that it works for addicts and non-addicts. By worrying about today you create a small measurable and immediate goal that you can use to guide your life. By looking out at the destination of the person that you want to be, you’ll not have specific actions that you can take today. You’ll never begin the journey because the steps will be too large.

Courageously you can step out in faith that if you work to be just a bit better today and a bit better the next day that you’ll eventually get there. You’ll never get there if you don’t start but all too often we fail to start because we’re scared of the effort necessary in the journey to reach the destination. Learning to step out in faith – to take a small step is at the heart of being courageous and living whole heartedly. It’s the path to keeping ourselves out of the trap of depression and suffering.

Depression and Suffering

For me it’s an amazing thing. We believe that others have perfect families. They have everything together. They never have struggles. At least that is how it seems until you get close. When you get close you realize that every family has its struggles. However, there are other families that seem stuck in their struggles. There are others who seem to be moving from one struggle to the next. When you look deeper here you see that they’re not moving from one struggle to another, they’re staying in the same struggle. They’re reliving the same pain over and over again.

So everyone – whether having the appearance of being perfect or having the appearance of having nothing together – has the same struggles. They have pains inflicted upon them by their past, their present, or the threat of their future. There is no escaping pain and yet some are able to escape suffering. How is that? How Children Succeed talks about secure detachment and limiting the number of adverse childhood events (ACE). There are discussions of delayed gratification and its power to help people power through the challenges of the present and look for a better future.

More fundamentally though, those who are suffering are choosing to remain in the pain. They’re choosing to be depressed. As Glasser writes in Choice Theory – they’re choosing to depress. If you confront someone who is suffering and you tell them that they’re choosing to stay where they are you’re not likely to get a good reaction. They want to believe that their condition has been inflicted upon them. They don’t want to take responsibility for their condition. It’s easier to be a victim than to work your way out of the darkness and into the light. (Victimhood is a theme in Choice Theory but I’ve also discussed it in my review of Boundaries, Beyond Boundaries, Daring Greatly,
Change or Die.)

Victimhood is fundamentally opposed to courage. Courage is perpetually preventing yourself from taking up residence in victimhood. Courage is accepting responsibility for how you’re going to live – and making your life better one day at a time.

Courage to Read

The journey of a thousand steps begins with but one. Are you ready to start your journey by reading Find Your Courage?


How to Be Yourself

I recently read Find Your Courage: 12 Acts for Becoming Fearless at Work and In Life. As I was writing the review I realized that it had gotten long – too long. Much like I had to do for the book Dialogue – I needed to break up the content into separate blog posts. So the information here is inspired by Find Your Courage – but represents so many connected thoughts that talking about it in the context of a single book review wouldn’t do it justice.

One of the great challenges in life is finding yourself – your true self. We spend so much time hiding ourselves from others that we often end up hiding from ourselves. In this post it’s my hope that you’ll discover a path to becoming your most authentic self. The heart of being ourselves is to build the courage to be real. It’s courage that allows us to act even though we’re fearful. In relationships this fear can surface as a lack of trust and a lack of vulnerability which ultimately leads to a lack of intimacy. (See Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy for more about being yourself by trusting and by being vulnerable.) The first step in discovering ourselves is being honest – and that is a paradoxically difficult thing.

Paradox of Honesty

One of the paradoxes to life is that the more that you’re real the more that you make it possible for people to criticize you – the real you. When you’re fake or you’re not showing your real self, if someone criticizes you it is less impactful. After all, it’s not the real you that they’re criticizing. They’re criticizing some image that you’re projecting. If they don’t like it you can simply change the image that you project.

If you have a fixed mindset – that we’re unchanging – then if someone doesn’t like you there’s nothing that can be done. Luckily the book Mindset reminds us that we can change ourselves but that takes more work – more strength – than many people want to apply.

The truth is that many people are different people around different groups of people. These folks expect that they’re going to project some image – rather than letting someone see them for who they really are. After all they don’t like themselves so why would anyone else like them if they can see the real them.

Here is the deep seated and well-hidden truth. Our egos don’t like to let us know how frail they are and how much they ache and hurt from all of the things that have happened in our lives. Our inner critic knows everything we’ve ever done wrong and is happy to bring it up at a moment’s notice to prevent us from being hurt or doing something “bad” again. As we learned in Change or Die, the ego has powerful mechanisms it uses to keep us from even knowing how badly we see ourselves.

So if you can identify yourself being different people – projecting different images – when you’re with different groups of people the critical question is who are you really? Are you really the person that you become with your buddies drinking on a Saturday night making jokes and cutting up. Are you the person who serves in the church on Sunday mornings? Do you hide what you did on Saturday night from your Sunday morning friends? Do you hide your activity in the church from your buddies on Saturday night? Shouldn’t it be clear that you’re trying to appear to be what you aren’t if you’re hiding your behaviors from other groups?

All of the hiding, all of the projecting, and all of the remembering how you’re supposed to behave can be exhausting. You’re always trying to be something you’re not. Think about it this way. Hold a gallon of milk – it will weigh roughly 8-9 lbs. If you hold it on your side – next to who you are – it’s going to be heavy but not unmanageable. Now instead take the same gallon of milk and hold it straight out – as far from your body and your real you – as possible. For most folks holding a gallon of milk straight out to our side is an exhausting task – even for just a few minutes. That’s what it’s like to try to project an image to someone else that isn’t who you really are. You’re holding things – or people – away from the real you.

So the paradox of honesty is that being honest and allowing people to see the person that you really are takes courage. It takes allowing people to see the person that you really are and to accept that they may not like you – the real you. However, at the same time, by expressing who you really are you are creating an opportunity to save so much energy. You don’t have to worry about maintaining the projected reality.

Steven Reiss in Who Am I? shares the results of his research into the factors that motivate people. Trying to project an image is trying to hide what you really believe. What you believe and what you find important defines you. While allowing people to see your beliefs on important topics may be scary, it may also be required to live an authentic life.

Being Someone Else

Some of us have spent our whole lives projecting other images. We’ve spent our lives being someone else. The person we are is outgoing or compassionate or some other expectation that was leveled against us when we were young.

Whether you’re struggling to become the “good Christian man” or the “good Christian woman” and realizing that you’re falling short of the mark – because you’re not perfect – or you’re simply trying to fit into a cliché that your parents told you that “good boys don’t…” or “good girls don’t…” you’re living someone else’s life. The real tragedy is that the person whose life you’re trying to live isn’t real. It’s a fairy tale. It’s a bedtime story designed to make us feel good. No one is perfect. We’re all struggling to be the best we can be. It’s a tragedy that sometimes the best person we’re trying to be isn’t us.

The voices in your head that whisper “You should…” are the inner critic trying to get you to be that image of someone else so that you can be good enough to get your parents love, to be accepted by the cool kids, or to “fit in.” The problem is that it’s fool’s gold. It’s a false hope.

Your parents either did their job as parents in loving you for who you are or they didn’t. Projecting the good girl or good boy image won’t change their ability to love you – no matter how much you may desire that to be the case.

The groups that you’re in will either accept you – or they won’t. Mostly this is based on your ability to fit into their mold and their way of thinking. If you’re a free spirit who has original ideas you’ll find that they may not like you. However, that’s about them and their limiting beliefs – not about your value as a person no matter how much your ego may feel harmed by the experience.

The heart of being yourself is to be who you are no matter what the consequences – and to realize that just because a group doesn’t like you or love you doesn’t make you unlikable or unlovable. It means simply that these aren’t the right people for you.

Knowing Who You Are

Notwithstanding the high school assessment tests, most of us haven’t ever spent time trying to figure out who we really are. We moved from one stage of life to the next without really figuring out who we are. I don’t mean that we ask people who we are. I mean we sit reflecting on what we believe, what we want, and what we enjoy.

For those of us who became trapped in the image that someone else wanted for us it’s difficult to see beyond the projected images. We learned to be pliable and adaptable so that we could survive in many situations. We learned to not express our real desires or we might be reprimanded. We accepted others views that Lima beans were “Yuck!” instead of trying them for ourselves.

Over the years I’ve taken numerous assessments to figure out who I am. I’ve tried Disc, Myers-Briggs, Enneagram, Clifton Strengths Finder, Reiss’ assessments, a battery of Novation’s tests, and more. I’ve looked at other assessments as well. The funny thing is that none of the assessments that I’ve done have been able to describe who I am.

Another common path to finding yourself is quiet contemplation and reflection. In today’s always on, instant gratification, Microwave and Internet world, it’s hard to find time to just sit and reflect. For me, the reading that I do is that reflection time. It’s a way for me to evaluate myself from different points of view to try to see a clearer picture of myself.

So have I found the real me? Well, I feel comfortable in my skin. I know some of my likes and dislikes. I have a vision of the world I want to create. However, I still spend time taking assessments and reflecting on my world through the lenses of other authors. I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand who I am. However, I have a sense of peace that I know what some of my core beliefs are and I know what tenants of my existence I won’t violate.

At the same time, I look at things I want to change and get better at. Those are my areas for improvement. Places where my ideal self and my actual self aren’t in alignment. Those are areas where I am learning to change who I am.

Changing Who You Are

One of the benefits of projecting an image is that it’s obvious that a projected image is capable of changing. It’s obvious that if you’re projecting a false image that you can adjust it like adjusting a projector. What isn’t obvious is that we can change ourselves. Mindset discussed the power of believing that we’re not fixed. We’re capable of changing and growing. However, this conclusion isn’t obvious. It’s not obvious that it’s possible to change anything about myself – if I want to. If you’re convicted you can change your weight. If you’re passionate you can become an expert at anything. If you’re ready you can launch into a new career. Change is inherent to the human condition – but it’s not obvious. (Strengths Finders 2.0 questions whether we should change limitations or only focus on our strengths which accepting that we are malleable.)

The tricky part to changing yourself is the risk. The risk that you won’t succeed – but more importantly that you will succeed in changing and you won’t like the results. If you’ve made a change to who you are and you don’t like the result – what do you do then?

A more interesting questions is when should you change? If one person likes your hair the way it is and another likes it cut differently – how do you decide whether to change or not? First it’s important to acknowledge that the person may not like your hair another way. The perception is that they will – but until the change is made, no one will really know for sure. As was discussed in Stumbling on Happiness and The Happiness Hypothesis, we’re lousy at predicting how happy we’ll be.

Second, why should you change yourself for what someone else believes? What makes their judgement or perception any more correct than your own? Sometimes when your self-perception and self-image aren’t that great, you assume that others have you all figured out and that by changing to be the way that they want you to be it will be safer and better.

I can tell you that over the years I’ve met plenty of people – mostly women – who have changed to be what their boyfriend or spouse wanted them to be. They tried changing aspects of themselves – or at least aspects of their behavior – to fit someone else’s view. In my experience that rarely works. Most of the situations are ones where narcissistic and controlling people try to convert others into tools for helping them feel good about themselves. We’ve all heard of the trophy wives. Great for the guy but how does the woman feel about herself? How will she feel about herself when her looks fade as they always do?

On the converse side, I’ve been blessed to know some very gifted and altruistic people who seek to speak truth into my life. Sometimes I struggle to hear the truth and sometimes they’re wrong, however, they provide me with a valuable perspective that helps me to know how to grow and change. The trick to changing who you are – which is really possible – is understanding which people have your best interests at heart and those who have their own best interests at heart. It’s knowing that you can change – but that you shouldn’t always change.

Stable Core

I spoke about what the concept of stable Core is for me in my post The Inner Game of Dialog. I explained that it’s about having a stable set of principles. A fixed set of perspectives on things. I was on a vacation with the family when I started writing this post. We were visiting the light houses of the lower peninsula of Michigan. The important reflection that I’ve had on this trip is that the value of lighthouses is that they provide a way for you to determine where you are. That’s what a set of fixed principles do. They provide a way for you to measure where you are. The clearer that you are about your principles the clearer you can be about where you are – and where you’re going.

Henry Cloud and John Townsend in Beyond Boundaries talk about defining boundaries – the ones that separate one person from another but more importantly define who the person is. When someone violates that boundary they quite literally become another person. These are different than the temporary boundaries that we need for a time but that don’t necessarily define who we are.

For me, for instance, I say that “I will not run, I will not hide.” What this means to me is that I will not run from a problem or a fear. I won’t move away and hope it will go away. The other half, that I won’t hide, is that I won’t try to dodge, deflect, or avoid problems and consequences that come my way. For me this is a core part of who I am. If I fail to honor this idea I’ll become a different person.

Having fixed points means that while I may be shaken about my beliefs I’ll always return with a core happiness based on knowing that I know who I am – and that I live that out. I can tell you that my choice to not run or hide is a very hard road. There are many times when it would be easier to bow out of conflict and ignore it. There are many times when though I’m exhausted I know that I have to have a difficult conversation. (Perhaps Crucial Conversations.)

You Are Not What You do

One of the great paradoxes is that you must on the one hand be responsible for your actions, on the other hand you’re not what you do. That is to say that you have to be willing to take responsibility for what you do and what you’ve done but not be so debilitated by the shame and guilt so that you don’t move forward. (See Daring Greatly for more on the debilitating aspects of shame and guilt.) It’s taking responsibility for the results that you’ve caused – intentional or not. For instance, supporting a baby if you’ve had sex with your girlfriend and she gets pregnant.

It’s stepping up and trying when the situation isn’t perfect, because the situation is never perfect. Waiting for a perfect situation is cowardice not courage. It’s a decision to take no risk. It’s saying that I won’t do anything until the conditions are perfect for success. I don’t want to take the chance that my determination, skills, and talents aren’t enough to make an imperfect situation work.

Being Enough and Good Enough

Sometimes being courageous is hindered by the voice inside your head saying that you’re not enough. Even if you do the work. Even if you make the changes. Even if you are able to grow. You still won’t be enough. It’s safer to not try and not be enough than to try to grow and fail to be enough after you’ve given it your all. The funny thing is that this is a lie. The voice is lying to you. As I discovered in God Loves You, you’re always enough.

Sometimes the expression isn’t about being enough, it’s couched in the idea that we’re not good enough. We don’t deserve the love we receive because we’re not worthy of it. As a result we minimize, deflect, or outright ignore it. Our belief that we’re not good enough means that we can never do enough to be worthy. This persistent belief keeps us from living wholeheartedly. We can’t be our real selves because we’re filled with fear and self-doubt because we’re not perfect. Because we have human faults and desires we must somehow be less than other people. We don’t see that they’re just as frail and flawed as us. Somehow we’re a failure because we can’t be perfect.

Human Being

At the end of the day we’re all human beings. We have flaws. We have preferences. We have quirks. We have much to learn. Go out and learn who you are – not who others want you to be.


Book Review-Strengths Finder 2.0

Do you know what you’re good at? What your natural talents are? Do you have any thoughts on how you might better leverage your talents to drive your mission and purpose? Well, Tom Rath’s immensely popular book Strength Finders 2.0 is designed to help you focus on your inherent strengths – your talents – and to improve upon them.

Immensely Popular

When I say that the book is immensely popular, I say that with conviction. The book consistently outsells every other book in the category. You’ll find that on list after list it consistently gets the top long-term spot. However, there’s a bit of a twist to the story. The book itself is an introduction, a listing of the talents, followed by a closing. It is in fact little more than the details of all of the potential talents from the Clifton Strength Finder test.

On the surface this doesn’t seem that interesting. However, what’s interesting is that whether you buy a physical copy or an eBook version you get a code that allows you to take the test which indicates the top five talents that you have. This means that in effect many people are buying the book to get the test. Still it’s quite impressive to have sold as many units as they have. I also have a deep respect for this book as a marketing tool approach because it’s the same thing as I did with the SharePoint Shepherd’s Guide for End Users.

The Test

Taking the test is a series of comparative statements where you have to indicate which one your feel like best describes you on a scale from one to the other. These sorts of tests are frustrating to many people because they feel pulled to neither of the options – or both. It makes the tests effective at finding our core personality traits. (This is like the approach John Gottman uses to determine which couples are destined for divorce. See Science of Trust for more.)

The output of the test is, as I mentioned above, the top five talents that you have. The detailed report describes how you should respond and how you’re motivated based on the indication of these types of talents. The language of strengths was substituted for talents in the title – but it’s just different language for the same thing.

I’ve spoken about all sorts of other metrics that we can use to assess people including Meyers-Briggs, the Enneagram, as well as the work that Steven Reiss did in Who Am I?.

The Talents

One of the interesting things for me about the talents is that some of them seem clustered very close to one another. For instance, Input and Learner. These two talents seem very similar to me except that one is focused on the acquisition of data and experiences and the other one on – well – learning. They’re very similar but at least slightly differentiated.

Futuristic and Strategic are two other talents – that were both on my results that also felt very similar. One sees the future and the other plans for the future. I’d love to see the science behind the questions and how they arrived at these 34 talents because it feels to me as if several should have been collapsed.

However, the full list does accurately describe many of the different kinds of folks that I see.

The Results

For me there were a few interesting things about the results. However, the most interesting is comparing my result of Strategic and my Enneagram result of Reformer. The Reformer is under responsive to intuition. That is to say that they don’t listen to intuition as much as they should. However, the feedback from Strategic talent is to trust your intuitive insights as much as possible. This is an interesting space for me to consider whether I’m accepting my intuition as much as I should.

If I go back to the Enneagram it’s possible that I’m a high functioning reformer and therefore I’ve minimized the natural tendency to not trust my insights. Further as I look at my scores again I’m not substantially placed in the reformer category. If I took the test again my results might move. However, I found the discrepancy or apparent conflict between the two measures interesting.

The rest of the results include Learner, Futuristic, Achiever, and Connectedness. However, as I read the talents though I must admit that I believe that many of the talents apply to me – not because I want to be arrogant (or because I have the Self-Assurance talent). I could just identify with many of the things that were said for each talent.

The Short Route

There is one thing, however, that I take particular exception to in the book. That is the ideas that the traditional thinking that you can become anything that you want to be and that you should work hard to reach your goals aren’t right. Rath is careful to say that he believes that developing your talents by providing the raw materials for them to improve are important, he doesn’t believe that we should spend time working on our weaknesses. I find this to be inconsistent with folks like Carol Dweck’s work in Mindset about us having control of our own destiny and our own ability to grow. The argument Rath provides is that we should be focused on our strengths.

He’s saying that we can take the easy route and skip the 10,000 hours of purposeful practice that is described in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. Conceptually the idea is great. Only work on things that you’re good at. Improve your talents where you’re already gifted. Do what you enjoy to do. The idea is that success comes if you’re able to focus on just those things that you enjoy. However, I find that this is a bit too simplistic. While I don’t advocate beating yourself up on things that you simply don’t get, I recognize that performance comes through creating Flow and flow is a delicate balance between challenge and skill.

There have been plenty of books that I’ve forced myself through which have become very important over my career as a source of information. Diffusion of Innovations is one good example of reading something difficult but that was absolutely worth it. So I’m concerned that Rath’s message may be interpreted as an excuse for not working hard and perhaps more importantly not working on small skills that inhibit us from reaching the heights that our talents would allow.

Compensating Weakness

Here’s where it gets muddy like it did with The ONE Thing (which said you should focus on one thing then gave you five different areas of your life to find the one thing.) How do you know what your talents are and what you should and shouldn’t work on? Let’s say that I want to get better at stand-up comedy. However, I’ve got a bad habit of looking down instead of looking at the audience. If my talent isn’t connectedness should I work on this? What if it inhibits my real talent which is communication? See the rub?

Where do the individual skills that make up the talent end and where does the talent begin? Should I work on something that is difficult for me if it unlocks the potential of my talent? From my point of view the answer is yes – particularly if the skill is easy to acquire.

Back to the stand-up comedy example, what if my issue isn’t that I can’t make eye contact. What if the issue is that I don’t know how to use a microphone? Wouldn’t it make sense to have a friend help me use a microphone more effectively? Wouldn’t it make sense to ask someone to watch and remind me when I’m not using the microphone well? Most folks would say yes – and yet microphone usage probably doesn’t fit into any specific talent.

Ultimately, there are weaknesses that we all have which prevent us from reaching our potential. If we have poor vision and don’t have glasses or contacts it will have a substantial impact on our ability to be successful at almost anything. However, with vision correction the weakness is hardly noticeable. So how do we do as good leaders do and work around the weaknesses and support the development of the core talents of our friends, subordinates, peers, and superiors? (Learn more about this idea in Multipliers.)

Finding Value

Whether you agree that you should only work on your strengths or agree with me that you should focus on your strengths while making sure that you address any limiting weaknesses, I think you’ll find Strengths Finder 2.0 a good start at becoming


Book Review-The Success Principles

I started reading The Success Principles because it was the book that CJ McClanahan was going to do next in his book club. While that idea got redirected, I finished reading the book – several months after I started. Part of that is because the book is long. It’s not quite 500 pages. Where most business books weigh in around 200 pages. So there was more content here than in two average business books. Another reason is there are 64 chapters. I have a habit of reading a chapter at a time from a few books at the same time. So with short easy to read chapters this book ended up taking longer.

No matter how long it takes to get through the real question is was the information impactful. In a word, Yes. However, you know I’m not going to leave it at just one word.

Establishing Context

Before diving into the content of the book it’s important to understand Jack Canfield. Jack is best known for his co-creation of the Chicken Soup for the Soul
series of books. These books have been a consistent encouragement for over 20 years to millions of people. As a result Jack has direct experience in being successful. Along the way he exposes that success is the result of your responses to events – and perhaps a bit of luck.

The other context that you need to understand about The Success Principles is that the book is over 10 years old having been first published in 2005. It’s not going to be about the newest fad or phase. It’s designed around timeless principles rather than the psychology of the moment. It is in fact, much like the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, a collection of best practices which may have been seen in other places before. That doesn’t make them less valuable – in fact it makes them more valuable. The Success Principles is frequently referring to other books and experts for more on a principle being revealed.

Talk and Action

Do you have friends or acquaintances who routinely complain about their circumstances to you? Do they feel underappreciated at their job or slighted by their family – and they’re telling you? It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to do anything about any of the situations that they’re talking about. However, they inflict their pain on you because complaining feels better than doing the hard work of addressing the problem whether that problem is in them or in the other person. Their ego (See Change or Die for my discussion of The Ego and Its Defenses) won’t allow them to see that there are things they need to work on like setting boundaries (See Boundaries and Beyond Boundaries for more on boundary setting.) While you can have sympathy for these folks, the fact is that until they’re able to address the barriers in their life – the barriers that they have the power to remove, they’ll likely be stuck complaining about the same things to the same people who can’t help them.

Every book on success has a component of its message which is action. This shouldn’t be surprising because it takes action to change the circumstances in which you live. However, sometimes there are recommendations to wait until you know where you’re going to go. There are sometimes four easy steps to figuring out your mission in life. Once you have that figured out then you can start to take action. I was recently reminded that I often say that I have no idea what door God is going to open for me but in the meantime I’m going to be putting on my running shoes. That means taking actions that lead me to the success that I want. Not that I don’t feel abundantly blessed – however, I also feel like there is more I’m supposed to do for humanity. So I take action to better myself and my environment every day.

The key to changing your life for the better isn’t in thinking about a better life. It’s not a dream that you can grab ahold of and suddenly reach. It’s a thing that you have to strive for.


There are some things you just have to do for yourself. I recently reorganized the garage and mini-barn at the house. The unfortunate reality of this is that I couldn’t delegate this to anyone else. I needed to make the decisions about what to keep and what could go away. I needed to organize things in a way that made sense to me. It simply wasn’t something that I could delegate. Jim Rohn said “You can’t hire someone else to do your push-ups for you.” So this is a time consuming thing that I had to do.

Conversely there are still many things that I do that I should delegate and don’t. That’s one reason why I bought a stoplight for my office. Yes, a real, full sized stoplight. The goal was to help me to remember the rules for delegation. The reality is there are a large list of things that I can do. I can clean the office. I can mow my yard. I can go to the post office. These are the yellow lights. For me the things that I can do aren’t necessarily the things that I should do. The things I should do are a green light. These are things like reading books and writing blogs. They are the things that require me and not someone else. Finally there are the things that I should not do. Not that I can’t just that I shouldn’t. For instance, I shouldn’t do plumbing. I learned how to sweat copper for a little project – but just because I can doesn’t mean I should go replace a water heater. There are things that are better left to experts and I need to know when to hire those out.

Finding Your Mission in Life

One of the greatest aspirations of people is to determine their mission in life. The goal is to figure out what they should do with the time that they’re given. However, at the same time this is also one of the most elusive things. We hear of people going through mid-life crises knowing that they didn’t accomplish what they wanted to accomplish and realizing they need to make a change. So they buy a sports car or decide to run a marathon or make other changes in their life that they believe will move them closer to their mission. However, these changes are superficial and often don’t lead to the kind of lasting joy that people want.

Canfield says that joy is your inner guidance system. It’s the thing that leads you to knowing where your mission lies. If you’re working on things that bring you joy whether you’re monetarily successful or not doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you’re joyful.

While it’s easier to reach a goal when you know what it is, if you’re like me sometimes the hardest part is figuring out what the goal should be.

Belief in Your Dreams

There’s a careful balance to be struck between entitlement – the belief that you’re due something – and availability – that if you work towards the goal you’ll achieve it. We live in a world where millennials have been conditioned to believe that they deserve things. Their parents wanted to make sure that their children weren’t being overlooked. Whether it was equal playtime in the junior soccer league, getting the lead part in the church play, or even just getting the biggest slice of the pie at the party. As a result we’ve created a group of people that as a whole believe that they’re entitled to a better life. I’m appalled to hear stories where parents are going to interviews with their children – their college graduated children applying for professional positions.

On the other hand there are far too many of us who are being held back by limiting beliefs that we’re not worthy or that we don’t deserve success and happiness. We believe that success can only come to those people who have something that we don’t. Carol Dweck in her book Mindset makes the point eloquently that we aren’t a fixed point that we can change, adapt, and grow. Sometimes it’s not that we believe that we’re not good enough but instead we believe that we don’t have the right circumstances. Perhaps you weren’t born to a rich family. Perhaps you didn’t go to college. However, these barriers aren’t real. We’re taking generalizations like more education equates to more compensation. We’re forgetting that buried into any statistic are the outliers. (See Malcom Gladwell’s book called Outliers for how to become an outlier.)

The fact of the matter is that 20% of America’s millionaires never set foot in college and nearly 10% of the Americans listed as billionaires didn’t get their college diploma. If you’re thinking that you can’t be successful without a college degree – there are some folks who would beg to differ. In fact roughly 75% of the folks that make their fortunes are entrepreneurs. Only 10% of the wealthy are executives – which is the way that we typically think of the wealthy. The entrepreneurs are united by a belief that they can do something. Their battle cry is “Let’s try.”

If you feel like you can’t then someone in your life has taught you self-limiting beliefs that have to go. The fact of the matter is that you’re never really stuck unless you give into those limiting beliefs. The only losers are those who don’t get back up on the horse.

Consider for a moment that 80% of lottery winners file bankruptcy within 5 years. That’s crazy. Their success wasn’t limited by money as we’ve been taught to believe. Their success had to be tied to something else. Perhaps it’s the way they view money or perhaps it’s their self-control. Whatever it is, it’s clear that their problem wasn’t a lack of money.

Converting Dreams to Reality with Persistence

If you can hold onto your dreams and never let go then you’ll eventually achieve them. Whatever you call it grit (in the language of How Children Succeed), Stockdale Paradox (in the language of Good to Great), perseverance (in the language of Seeing What Others Don’t) or simply persistence (in the language used by Emotional Intelligence) the fundamental point is the same. That is, that there’s a power in just being persistent. Persistence created the Grand Canyon. Water didn’t carve the canyon in a day. The Golden Gate Bridge was initially conceived in 1916 and didn’t finally open until 1937. The Sagrada Família started construction in 1882 and it’s estimated that the construction will be completed in 2028.

Persistence pays off. Consider that 44% of all sales people quit trying after the first call and 94% of sales people quit by the fourth call but 60% of all sales are made after the fourth call. So 94% of all of sales people aren’t eligible for 60% of the sales because they’re unwilling to invest in getting the four rejections they need to earn the right for the remaining 60% of the business.

Not every endeavor or every dream requires the level of persistence as some of the above examples but anything worth doing – anything that will be truly rewarding – requires a level of persistence to make it happen.

The Truth and Small Changes

The truth is that the difference between wildly successful and relative mediocrity is very small. Consider that in baseball the difference between great players (> .300 batting average) and the mediocre (> .250 batting average) is just one hit in twenty. The truth is that the differences that put someone at the top of their game and the rest of us are just a few small things. (See Three Plays in Launch!)

However, despite the relatively small changes necessary to achieve great success most people are afraid of the truth. They don’t want to know that they slouch when they speak or that they slur certain words. They don’t want the negative feedback. Their ego doesn’t want to be harmed (See Change or Die for more on the ego and its defenses).

The problem is that the truth is the truth whether you’re aware of it or not. Babies don’t suddenly float because they’re not aware of the law of gravity. The truth doesn’t hurt us less because we don’t know it. We just don’t understand its effects. (See Thinking in Systems for more on not understanding how a system operates.)

One of the challenges with finding the truth is understanding what the truth is. The problem is that we don’t get the truth. We simply get perceptions and feedback. I once was speaking in LA about abstraction and wrapping classes and I made the offhand remark that I had to be careful about talking about rapping on stage because I might get shot. At the time there were a lot of rappers getting shot. One of the pieces of feedback that I received (and I’m not making this up) was that I was a racist. It was that one comment that they believed made me a racist. The interesting thing about this is that one could say I was stereotyping rappers – guilty as charged – but saying that I was a racist didn’t make any sense.

The point of this story is that people only have their perceptions and can only provide their feedback. It’s up to us to find the truth – sometimes the hard truth – in what is being said. Jack Canfield quotes Jack Rosenblum as saying “If one person tells you you’re a horse, they’re crazy. If three people tell you you’re a horse, there’s a conspiracy afoot. If ten people tell you you’re a horse, it’s time to buy a saddle.” The point is that you’re going to have to ask for a lot of feedback to find the truth – whether it’s that you’re a horse or not.

Asking for feedback is an act in humility. (For more on humility see Humiliitas.) It’s placing yourself in a stance that is willing to learn. Sometimes this is called a palms up stance. It’s a willingness to learn from what is around you like the Jesuits did. (See Heroic Leadership.) To act in a way that allows you to be that open requires a great deal of inner strength to be able to accept the feedback. For me that’s a stable core – knowing who I am and what I stand for. I talk about this in my post The Inner Game of Dialogue and how the martial arts core of centering is key to being able to accept the feedback of others.

Core Genius

What is it that you do better than anyone else in the world? If you can’t answer that then perhaps you can answer what can you do better than anyone else in your world? Or perhaps what do you feel like you’re the most naturally gifted or talented at? If you’re like me the question is still rather hard, however, I’m developing some answers.

I decided to purchase the Strengths Finder 2.0 book and take the Clifton Strengths Finder assessment. I scored top three talents in Learning, Futuristic, and Strategic. These talents lead me to not have one thing that I’m good at – one core genius. Instead, as a learner, future focused person (See The Time Paradox for parallels), and strategic thinker I tend to learn lots of things – sometimes well and sometimes less well.

For me, there are many things that I can do which are powerful. From my point of view the adaptability and deep reservoir of things I’ve learned over the years are my core genius. However, that’s like saying that your core genius is the next thing that you encounter – it’s not very fulfilling from the “find an answer” point of view.

If you’ve got a better, more focused answer, the question is how much of your time do you spend doing that thing – and how much time do you spend doing “everything else.” Even without focus I’m careful to consider those things I can, shouldn’t and should do. The things I should do are those things where they match key skills that I’ve developed or will energize me. The rest of the things that I do I need to try to delegate. It’s estimated that entrepreneurs spend only 30% of their time in their core genius. Can you imagine what it would be like if we could spend 70% on our core genius? Perhaps you would find your own Success Principles.


Reflections on the Gartner Catalyst Conference

Most of the time when I go to a conference I see the same faces. When you’re speaking inside of a technology you get used to the same faces. You’re seeing the same speakers and in some cases attendees over-and-over again. You get to expect how the conference organizers run the conference. However, when you’re given an opportunity to speak at a conference you don’t normally attend, it’s a whole new ball game.

The Opportunity

I’m quite honored to have been asked to share my story – or rather the story of my clients with the Gartner Catalyst attendees. The number of outside speakers at the conference can be counted on your hands. (Or at least your hands and toes) So it’s a special honor to be invited. If you’re an attendee of the conference the presentation I gave – Five Lessons from Less-Than-Successful Intranets – is available from the conference site. (If not send us a message and we’ll get you a copy of the slides.)

It’s great to even get the opportunity to experience the event because there are things that they do that are so radically different than other events that I was instantly impressed

The Experience – Wireless

I’ve come to expect that wireless won’t work at the conference or at the hotel. I expect that I’m going to have to use the hotspot on my cell phone to get any kind of connectivity. After my recent trip to Northern California where I had no cellular service I was a bit concerned. However, I couldn’t have been more pleased with how well the WiFi worked at Catalyst.

The Internet connection on the conference wireless was AMAZING. I wasn’t streaming movies or downloading Windows 10, however, it was rock solid connecting me and I always had connectivity. It was slow at times – but never awful and always better than expectation. I saw more access points and signal repeaters than I’ve ever seen – including at the larger conferences like Microsoft Ignite. In short, wireless was a 10 out of 10 for me.

The Experience – Meals and Refreshments

I take my caffeine in a cold suspension fluid – Diet Coke – and not coffee (a hot caffeine suspension fluid). As a result, I sometimes am challenged to find the caffeine that I need to stay awake in sessions. However, I was pleasantly surprised to see both Coke and Pepsi products out occasionally. Not that I didn’t have to hunt it down occasionally but it was an acceptable balance.

Meals were great. I’m a hot-food kind of guy. For whatever reason I don’t like cold breakfasts or lunches. As a result it was great to see meals that were hot and included protein. (I hate speaking right after the attendees have a carbohydrate laden lunch and are in a coma.)

The Experience – Signage

Despite having activities spread across four floors of the hotel, the signage was great. Digital signage (i.e. TVs) had the next session in each room and there was ample traditional signage helping to route people where they need to go.

The Experience -Schedule

So on the one hand the mobile event application and web site were great. You could schedule what you wanted and you had a personal event calendar that worked very well. On the other side, the variable length sessions – short sessions – and quick turnover times were frustrating.

If you wanted to have an in-depth discussion at a round table you would necessarily be walking into a presentation late because the round-tables were longer than the assigned speaking slots. So that could be frustrating to me as I tried to experience the small group time and the larger sessions.

Most conferences I attend or speak at have 60 minute or 75 minute sessions but at Catalyst the sessions were 35-45 minutes in length. It’s OK if you want to have a surface understanding but it prevents you from drilling into details. So as a result I would frequently feel like the speakers didn’t really dive into a topic. Of course they would refer to the papers they had written but as someone who isn’t a Gartner client that’s of little use – and it doesn’t allow you to hear the passion behind some statements in the documents.

The Experience – Other Speakers

The speakers were very experienced in their topics as you would expect. They knew the space, the content, and the questions. As a result, the materials were — generally speaking well prepared.

One of the obvious things to me – and admittedly an unfair comparison – is that they’re not professional or semi-professional speakers. The modulation of their voices was somewhere between monotone and how professional speakers speak. As a result some of the sessions felt dry. That’s a shame because there’s so much great knowledge that they were trying to convey.

The Experience – Connecting

For me, connecting with attendees is why I come. I want to be able to talk with them and figure out what they’re interested in and what they’re fighting with. There were table topics for breakfast and lunch which is helpful but I wish there were a better way to manage the connectivity.

There was also a peer connect setup that people could use but I found that it wasn’t being used very effectively – despite some rather direct marketing to the attendees. I don’t know what the solution is – but I can say that I would have loved to have found a better answer to connecting.

My Speaking

When I speak I expect that I’m going to have to figure things out myself. I’ve done lighting, audio, video, etc., for so long that it’s not something I worry about but in my room was an audio technician, a video technician, and a speaker assistant. So despite the quick 10 minute turnover time we made it work. I still think it’s too short but it worked out.

I found that the audience had become used to a presentation style that was dry and non-responsive. Some of the jokes that almost always go off were failing. While I did get some level of interaction, it’s not the level of interactivity that I generally strive for.

In Summary

It was a great event for me as I got to experience another kind of conference event. I’m hoping that I’ll have the opportunity to be invited back to another conference soon.


Book Review-Launch!: The Critical 90 Days from Idea to Market

Over the years I’ve launched a few products. Rarely have I moved from idea to implementation in less than 90 days. I tend to allow things to find their own flow. The Shepherd’s Guide initially took over 6 months to get done. In publishing terms that’s not so bad. In terms of the way that Scott Duffy thinks about product launches it’s quite slow. In the new phase of business growth we’re expecting to start to generate more products and launch them in a more rapid timeframe and that’s why when my friend Heather Newman suggested that I read Launch!, I decided I needed to pick it up and see what I could do to launch products faster.

The Role of Perseverance

Despite the title and the hype, there’s equally as much coverage in Launch! about persevering as there is about being quick to market. There are plenty of stories about people who managed to “hang in there” through some truly tough times. One particularly compelling quote is “Most entrepreneurs don’t realize how close they are to breaking through just before they decide to quit.” Jim Collins in Good to Great talks about what he calls the Stockdale Paradox “You must maintain unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, AND at the same time have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” In other words, you’ve got to be willing to change your course when you know you’re going to run aground but be willing to hold your course to try to find the new world.

Over the years I’ve considered whether I should continue Thor Projects. I’ve wondered if it’s what I should be doing. Financially the organization has always done fine. However, there have been many times when I’ve wondered if we were accomplishing our mission. There was a long time when I didn’t even know what the mission was.

On the SharePoint Shepherd side, I can tell you that the first year of the Shepherd’s Guide sales were interesting but not at all impressive. They weren’t even enough to do a second book. However, that all changed when I got a chance to run an email marketing campaign. In one day I got the same number of inquiries that I had received in the entire preceding year. Now the Shepherd’s Guide is a big part of the organization. I won’t retire off of its income but it certainly helps. I don’t know what would have happened if I had pulled the plug on it.

At the same time, I created a set of SharePoint training DVDs which haven’t sold enough to recover the investment in them. They still may but as of right now my assumption is that they won’t and as a result I’m not investing more time and energy in the idea of DVD sales. Could it be that this is the next great revenue stream that I’ve untapped? It’s possible but I doubt it. It’s an idea that I had to pull the plug on – and decide not to persevere so that I could move on to trying something else. (Here’s a hint. There are cool things coming from )

However, I’ve not given up on the Video Studio or the belief that video is a powerful way to educate. I continue to make investments to improve it and make it better. I’ve started developing training for a number of sites including Pluralsight and I had to realize the distribution vehicle and purchasing model were wrong with selling DVDs but fundamentally the idea that video content is a good thing hasn’t been abandoned.

Close Cousin Practice

The close cousin of perseverance is practice. I mentioned in my review of Primal Leadership about Walt Disney’s failures and how he learned something from it. How he did something small and used it as practice for the next bigger, grander project that he wanted to do. Sometimes perseverance is about more than just surviving. Sometimes it’s about learning, adjusting and adapting. There’s a hidden expectancy that we have if we’re working on something. We expect that we have to succeed or we’re a failure. We personalize the event into who we are instead of treating it for what it is, just something to try again.

I believe strongly that allowing yourself room to practice without the need to accept guilt or shame about not being successful is core to being successful in the long term. (See Daring Greatly for more about the impact of guilt and shame.) Malcom Gladwell speaks about the impact of practice in Outliers. He speaks about the number of hours of practice that experts get – intentional practice which leads to greatness. Howard Gartner expresses the same thing in Extraordinary Minds – how the great minds that he studied were deliberate with their practice.

It’s much easier to be persistent when you believe that you’re just practicing. You’re not ready for ultimate success yet. You’re not waiting on it. You’re just learning and developing yourself to become a better person and to become ready for ultimate success. (See Carol Dweck’s book Mindset for how you can change you and your skills.)

Long Term View

A student approaches a monk at a respected monastery and asks him how long he must study to become a master. The monk responds “ten years”. The student responds “That is too long. I have to be done in five.” The monk responds “In that case it will take 20 years.” Launch! describes the best short cut as a long term view. That is that you’re successful when you’re willing to take a point of view that you want to build skills over the long term.

We’ve all heard the parable of the tortoise and the hare where the tortoise wins because of his steady progress towards the finish line. I mentioned James MacDonald in my review of Seeing David in the Stone. James once mentioned that many people want his success but they don’t want the hard work that it took to reach his success. That’s the long term view. He did work that wasn’t glamorous or even profitable to build his skills and fulfil his purpose. The short term view is I want it now. The long term view is the view of building to success.

I mentioned in my review of The Time Paradox that my view is decidedly long. I am always looking for the answer which is the best long term answer. That’s a core part of how I’m wired – and a way that Launch! recommends that you view things.


Barry Swartz in the Paradox of Choice talks about Maximizers and Satisficers. Maximizers have to have the best and the perfect. The cost for this is being perpetually late and more importantly perpetually unhappy. They’re focused on the trivial and meaningless and as a result they end up getting nothing done and frustrating themselves. So on the one hand we should take a long term view. We should look at each thing we do as both practice and a stepping stone for the next great thing that we’re going to do. On the other hand we need to make a decision about when enough is enough.

With the Shepherd’s Guide we have this struggle. We can always keep adding in new tasks. We can tweak the existing content. We can make it better. However, if we continue to do this we’ll never ship it. We’ll never make any revenue and as a result we’ll not be able to continue business.

The trick as Swartz discusses is that we all have a bit of the maximizer and a bit of the satisficer in us. We need to make sure that the areas of our lives that we’re being maximizers in is the right part. The part that ultimately will lead us to fulfillment and will support us in the way that we want to be supported. We need to choose when to choose.

Not Important

Part of the key to managing perfectionism (or being a maximizer) is in targeting it into the areas that matter. Duffy recalls a conversation with the CEO of an organization that was doing well but there was chipped paint and torn carpet in their offices. When asked the CEO responded that it wasn’t important – and in truth it wasn’t important. It didn’t stop people from getting their job done and done well.

Tom Peters in his classic book In Search of Excellence discusses some of the things that drive entrepreneurs to create products that are compelling. Whether its Frank Perdue talking about the three feathers that are hard to get rid of when removing the feathers from a chicken or an obsession with clean washrooms driving attendance at a baseball stadium. There is an attention to detail and a frustration with the status quo that is the life blood of some successful entrepreneurs. Truett Cathy – the creator of Chick-Fil-A – has a passion for helping people. That passion created a restaurant that people wanted to be a part of and that ultimately created Chick-Fil-A.

In my book review of Demand, I spoke of Hassle maps and how some small hassles have a disproportionate impact on success. There are some small things that get in the way of success. Whether it’s a web site that is easy to use or a phone number that people can remember, there are little barriers that can be removed to reveal powerful results.

Three Plays

One of the aspects of The Titleless Leader that I missed in my review was a comment that most effective leaders aren’t well rounded. They’re acutely aware of their talents and use them to their advantage. This is based on Gallup’s research and findings that leaders who tried to be effective in every domain often become the least effective leaders.

Bruce Lee said “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practices one kick 10,000 times”. Football talent scout Stephen Austin says that the difference between the average and the best players in the world is just three plays. “Three moments when the superstar does something just a little different than everyone else.” We don’t have to conquer the world. We don’t have to become the best at everything we do. We only need to get a little different at three plays to become superstars in our fields.

A word of caution, however, we can’t suck at anything either. We’ve got to be able to adapt and play the position that we’re in not one that we would like to be in. So while we only need to be great at three plays – we have to be able to at least execute every play in the playbook.

Blurry Vision

Scott Duffy chides the CEOs he meets for not having a vision as to where their company will be in three years. I struggle with this not just because I don’t have a clear vision of where my businesses will be in three years but because of my awareness that we’re pulled along by market forces that necessarily drift us from where we started. Bob Pozen admits in Extreme Productivity that despite his drive and his belief that he knew where he was headed, he often ended up in a different spot because of life and market forces. In my experience this is the most accurate view.

The successful business folks I know admit that their success was due to a good deal of hard work and preparation – but also a great deal of luck. I was speaking with a friend the other day about retirement when he admitted that he was a structured saver creating a retirement program that was respectable but the real change in his life was an opportunity to buy a company being divested from a larger organization. His plans changed because of changes that were far outside of his control – and at the time of his desire.

So while Scott Duffy in Launch! believes every CEO should have a firm vision of where the organization should go, I believe that every CEO should have a clear understanding of the direction they want to go – their compass. I believe that having a clear vision requires a clear map and I don’t think that anyone who is exploring new territories in business can possibly have a clear map. Even if they did at the pace in which our world works I can’t imagine that the map would be useful for very long.

Money and Exiting

It’s fitting that Launch! ends with a section on financing and how to exit the business once it’s successful. However, for me neither topic is particularly interesting. I believe in self-funding as much as possible. I’m also years away from any desire to walk away from the business. As a result I’m not really able to fully process what is said here. However, there is coverage for those who need it.

All-in-All, Launch! can help you motivate yourself to make your product launches happen faster… at least it appears that it can. You can watch me launch new products – or you can read the book and try for yourself.

Irish Wolfhound?

What is SharePoint is the Wrong Question!

If you do SharePoint for a living you’ve learned to dread the question that follows telling someone what you do. Pretty universally, that question is “What is SharePoint?” If it’s your full-time job – or even a part of your job – you feel that you should be able to answer that question in 30 seconds or less. However, it’s not that simple. It’s not that simple because what SharePoint is doesn’t tell the person what SharePoint is to them.

I can – and do – describe SharePoint as a web-based platform for building communication and collaboration solutions. In doing so, I might as well be speaking in a foreign language. It doesn’t make any more sense to you than it would for me to try to explain email to Thomas Edison. He’s a smart guy – but he’s not likely to understand what solutions email enables in people’s lives in the context of his world.


Analogies are the lens through which we learn something new. We look at how SharePoint is like and is not like what we already have, so that it can be made to make sense. To that end, I’d like to share two analogies and compare them. The first, prefabricated houses, helps to convey the speed at which we can build solutions to problems in SharePoint and the second, the building blocks analogy, helps to demonstrate the flexibility that we have to leverage components.

Prefabricated Houses

If you buy a prefabricated house, you know, for the most part, what you’re going to get. The basic plans are set. The walls are shipped in on a truck. They were made at a factory miles away. When the parts get on site they’re connected together and, rather rapidly, you end up with a house.

The benefits of a prefabricated house are that it’s generally cheaper and the quality is generally better because of the benefits of having good control and consistency in a factory. They also improve the time-to-completion. However, there’s generally less flexibility in the overall design, and relatively fewer ways to customize the home at a structural level.

SharePoint is built on the web, via templates, and provides a relatively consistent experience. Oversimplifying for a moment, everything in SharePoint is a list, library, or a web part. (I’m purposefully ignoring Microsoft’s newer names now for simplicity.) A web part is a way to visualize information or do something on a page. A list contains items and a library contains folders and files. The beauty of SharePoint is that it’s a set of predefined and tested components that can be put together. This makes it quick to set up and relatively low in cost.

Like a prefabricated house, there are some things in SharePoint which are set. You’re going to have SharePoint sites and they will contain various lists, libraries, and pages. The pages will have content and web parts. These are the basic building blocks. You get to control the final look and feel – like you would in a prefabricated home – but the structure is relatively fixed.

Out of the box, SharePoint has templates for search centers, team (collaboration) sites, and more. These are “ready to use” immediately after taking SharePoint “out of the box.” Like the prefabricated house, SharePoint can be available to use rather rapidly because of these predefined and tested components.

Building Blocks

I love Lego® building blocks. They’re great fun, plus I’ve had the pleasure to speak with some folks from their corporate offices over the years and I’m simply impressed. The beauty of Lego building blocks is that you can do almost anything with them. You can make houses, castles, cars, and hundreds of other things. These items are all based on a relatively small number of different kinds of building blocks. The magic of the Lego system isn’t the blocks themselves, but rather how they’re put together.

Some of the Lego kits are set up so that you have a single set of instructions about how to create the object on the box. Others are set up so that you can build several different objects with the same kit. These ship with the three or four sets of instructions necessary to build the different objects described in the kit. However, you don’t have to make what’s on the box. You can make anything you desire out of the blocks that you have.

SharePoint is similar in that you can build the kinds of things that are on the box. There are a set of instructions (templates) which can be used to quickly create pre-designed solutions. However, you don’t HAVE to make what’s on the box.

Of course, you can buy other Lego kits and get some of the less-common blocks that might not have come with your kit. You can do similar things by buying web parts or solutions specifically for SharePoint. You simply add to your starter kit with the new things that you want. Because you can buy from other kits – and in the case of SharePoint, create your own compatible blocks, what you can achieve is relatively limitless.

Comparing Analogies

I use this pair of analogies because it is the simplest way I know to answer the great challenge of describing SharePoint. On the one hand, you get utility, practically out of the box. You get quick templates for common needs and can get up and running quickly. On the other side of the fence, you get a platform for building solutions – with some assembly required. Both are true of SharePoint.

I should say that Microsoft has called the new development model Apps – then renamed them to Add-Ins. They have App Parts which are like web parts except using the new development model. Lists and libraries that you’ve added to your sites are now called Apps too in a move that I’m convinced was designed to just confuse people. Despite the musical name game SharePoint is built on sites, pages, lists and libraries, and web parts – no matter what we choose to call them.

It’s not about SharePoint

But this isn’t a blog post about how difficult it is to describe SharePoint. It’s a calling to ask a different question. Instead of “What is SharePoint?” the question should be, “Why do I care about SharePoint?”

Here the question changes because the important point isn’t what SharePoint is – but rather it’s about what SharePoint can do for the organization – and that’s why you care about SharePoint in an organization. It’s not the fancy features. It’s not about the extensibility. It’s about what you can do to build real business solutions that are impactful.

So what can you do with SharePoint? The answer is almost anything. Whether you should or not may be a different story but you can create all sorts of solutions with SharePoint. It can solve problems as diverse as project management to customer relationship management to document and records management.

In this is the key – I care about SharePoint in so much as I can use it to create solutions. To create solutions I have to have a framework for understanding it – and I need the ability to understand how to use it.