Among the treasure trove of ideas in Seth Godin’s book, POKE THE BOX, is this one: No one has influence, control, or confidence in their work (or any other area of their life) until they understand how to initiate change and predict how a thing will respond.
The “box” Godin is talking about in his title is any complex bit of your life that you want to understand better with the goal of making your interaction with it more effective.
The “box” might be that brand-new computer program, just sitting there waiting for you to poke at the buttons on your machine and make the new do-dad do things, make it dance.
The “box” might be a market you want to tackle and make sit up and take notice of you. Maybe that “market” is just one special somebody whose attention you crave. It might be a customer or it might be your boss or maybe a somebody you’d like to be significant in your life.
Whatever the “box” is, the thing is a puzzle that can be solved in only one way – by poking.
POKING IS A WAY OF BUILDING A PRACTICE
My brother Michael was an intrepid bug explorer in his youth. He was forever hunkered down, watching lines of ants or other critters, chasing down caterpillars and watching them turn into butterflies, studying spiders in their webs, and grabbing up crickets and grasshoppers.
He spent hours watching what the little guys did, poking at them with fingers and sticks, seeing how they moved and what made them do things differently.
When you do THIS, what happens? When you do THAT, what happens? Hey, it ALWAYS does this when I do that! Wow! Now, why did it do that?
Michael sure did learn a lot about bugs. They were his “box.” After a while he got really good at knowing what assorted bugs did and how and why. He turned an initial wonderment into a passion and that passion became a sort of practice for him.
ANOTHER KIND OF OWNERSHIP
In a similar way, if you poke at your own puzzles, your “box” reveals itself. As you get better at questioning and poking, you not only get smarter but you also gain what Godin calls “ownership.”
You step into the box and make it your own.
Godin’s kind of ownership does not have to be equity or even control. Ownership comes from understanding and from having the power to make things happen. “Ownership” is another name for mastery and influence.
THE WONDER OF IT ALL
It all begins with that sense of wonder, and it begins by asking questions and looking for some answers:
How does this work?
Why does it do that?
How can I make it do something else?
Can I do this with it? What about that?
What are its limits?
Can I expand those limits?
What happens when I do?
As you unravel your puzzles and wander around in your mysteries you’ll find your own answers. As you test your conclusions in the real world, seeing whether the things you’ve thunk actually work outside the confines of your own head, you will develop own your way of walking.
GUIDED BY THE ANSWERS
Consistently asking your questions and faithfully following where the answers lead you eventually gets you to a place where nobody else can answer the questions you still have. By then you’ll have built yourself a practice and a method and means for exploring this world you’ve discovered.
The answers you start finding and following are going to be different than the run-of-the-mill, regular ones. You’ve already gone past those everybody-knows-that answers.
If you do it right and don’t fall down some pothole or other and the creek don’t rise, maybe you’ll spark up more questions that other people can use to construct their own paths.
THE QUESTION-BOX HEADS OUT
It all starts with being aware. It all starts with noticing. It all starts with a determination to go where the answers to your questions lead you.
Godin says, “Winners turn initiative into a passion and a practice.” With his book, he shows you a way of doing just that.
The following YouTube video, “Make Your Life Spectacular,” was published by Goalcast and is a tribute to one of my favorite funny guys, the late Robin Williams. What a heartful man!
Here’s a poem, constructed for one who followed his questions:
The Twin Poets are identical twin brothers, Nnamdi Chukwuocha (born Elbert Mills) and Albert Mills, with a unique style of poetry that evolved out of their habit of finishing each other’s sentences and the rap and hip-hop of their youth. They are internationally known for their live performances of socially conscious work, including “Dreams Are Illegal In the Ghetto” and “Homework for Breakfast.
Their book, OUR WORK, OUR WORDS…: Taking the Guns From Our Sons’ Handsare filled with poems that tell the stories of the people they’ve encountered in their work as social workers and teachers for more than 17 years in the poorest sections of Wilmington, Delaware. These poems are definitely “Life-Built Poems” — of the most heartbreaking kind.
The brothers appeared on HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam” series in the mid-2000s and, as a result have since performed on stages across America, Europe and Africa. Through it all they continued to work with the people in their communities.
Besides being poets, the twins spent more than 17 years working at the Kingswood Community Center in Wilmington, Delaware and continued to expand and develop their idea that art could counter the dream-killing effects of poverty and hardship. Mills is a family therapist and community-based social worker and Chukwuocha is a social worker who has served on the Wilmington City Council for a number of years.
In 2014, Newsweek called Wilmington, “Murder Town USA” and said it ranked third on the FBI’s annual list of “most violent cities” among cities of comparable size. It also ranked fifth when compared to all cities with populations greater than 50,000.
Most of the city is safe, Wilmington residents who were offended by the Newsweek article protested.
A 2015 Delaware Today article, “Wilmington Crime: A City That Bleeds,” pointed out that the numbers in the statistics used by the Newsweek report of murder and mayhem are disproportionately centered in areas like the Hilltop neighborhood mentioned as well as other, similar neighborhoods and are the result of a number of chronic problems – not enough jobs, not enough support of education and training, housing issues, and several generations of social ills that have no easy solutions. It continues to be an ongoing problem.
Over the years the brothers have received a number of awards recognizing them for their community service, including the Village Award (2006) from the Delaware Department of Services for Children, Youth and their Families and a Local Heroes Award from Bank of America (2006).
The Twin Poets were the State of Delaware Mentors of the Year in 2001, and, in December, 2015, they were named the 17th Poet Laureate (a shared title) of the state of Delaware by former Governor Jack Markell.
Another article in Delaware Today, “Wilmington’s Twin Poets Provide Healing Through Art,” chronicles the extraordinary efforts they’ve made and continue to make to help save the children in the poorest of the communities they service from the hopelessness and helplessness that the disenfranchised experience in their world.
The brothers founded Art for Life–Delaware, a community-based, social worker-led mentoring program that uses art to change the lives of delinquent youth and their families.
They also developed G.O.A.L.S. (Getting Organized Always Leads To Success), a tutoring and mentoring program that teaches children about the importance of self-expression and writing.
This Hearts and Mind Film published in 2013 features the Twin Poets poem, “Why I Write”:
“Why I Write” is also the name of a website about the brothers and their work that was initially designed by the interactive design students at the University of Delaware.
As Chukwuocha says in the Delaware Today article about their life, the brothers have refused many invitations to become rap and hip-hop sensations over the years. They wanted to “make a difference,” he said. They continue trying.
It’s the first thing they teach you in chef school: a system called mise-en-place, or literally, “put in place.” It’s a French phrase that means to gather and arrange the ingredients and tools needed for cooking.
The mise evolved out of the rigid “brigade system” of culinary hierarchy codified in the 19th century by Chef Georges-Auguste Escoffier. This system emphasizes focus and self-discipline and a high level of organization and order.
Escoffier would probably have agreed with Ben Franklin who once said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”
In the high-stress world of the professional chefs, planning and preparation are paramount. How else could they prepare so many meals of exceptional quality, one after the other in a three-hour period, night after night after night?
Preparation is the essence of mise-en-place.
At its most basic, mise-en-place means to set out all of your ingredients before you start to cook. Measure out what you will need, chop the vegetables that will need to be chopped, and have everything ready on the counter or in small bowls on a tray.
If you talk to professional chefs, that part of the mise-en-place is just the tip of a very large iceberg. Some of them get downright Zen or Jedi about it. Everything has to be in place, including your stance and your mindset.
As Charnas says in an article he wrote for National Public Radio, “….most colleges and grad schools don’t teach basic organization. Culinary schools and professional kitchens do.”
This YouTube video, “The Ingredients of Work Clean,” published by Rodale Press shortly before the book came out, contains a brief explanation of what it is: a simple system that helps you focus your actions and accomplish your aims
Planning is prime. Be ruthlessly honest about time and timing. It’s the only way you can set it up right.
Arrange spaces so you can perfect moves. Place things so you can make your moves with just the flick of your fingers. Know how you move and place your dishes of prepared ingredients and your tools right where you will be able to reach them when it’s time to use them.
Clean as you go. Keep your tools and your station as organized as when you first started. This knife goes in this space. The chopped chives go right there. Everything that is no longer needed does not belong at your station. You’ll need it later so if you’ve got a breathing space, wash up the thing you’ve used and put it aside for when you’ll next need it.
Know what to start first. Start the longest process first. It will be done by the time you get to the shortest process and by the time you’re done, you’ll be at the end.
Do not wait to finish. It isn’t finished until it’s delivered. As soon as it’s ready, let it go.
Slow down to speed up. Don’t panic when things get hectic. Calm your body, calm your mind. Hurry opens the door to mistakes. Get it right, and fast will happen.
Open your eyes and ears. Balance your internal and external awareness. Remain focused and open. Be receptive. React as needed to the world around you but stay focused on what you are doing.
Call and call back. Streamline and confirm essential communications. Follow up, update your team and turn information into intel you all can use to work together well.
Inspect and correct. Excellence requires vigilance. Check your work.
Aim for total utilization. Avoid wasting time, space, motion, resources or persons. Figure out how to tap into the flow of using them all and making them move in the direction you want them to go. Look to create a synergy that you can step into.
The real is that mise-en-place is about being able to “work clean.” It’s not about “creating order,” as in, “Gee, wow, I’ve organized my desk and doesn’t it look clean and cool?”
What mise-en-place says is, “I’m committed to move through all of these many steps I need to do and get them done right. When I’ve finished with all the steps of this project I am on now, I’ll wrap it up and deliver it. Then I’ll resume my stance at my station, put myself in a position where everything is in place for me to work on the next project, and I’ll deliver that one.”
With mise-en-place you can repeat as needed for as long as necessary and it all gets done right every time. You think about the process of making something from start to finish, and then you set up a system so you can get it done.
The system you create and maintain will allow you to stay focused on the most important thing at each moment. What you need to do to accomplish something gets done faster and more proficiently because everything you need to do it is right there in front of you.
It’s cooking, planned and executed like a military campaign, and the moves are eminently transferable to other life-things as well.
A companion YouTube video, also published by Rodale Press, “The Daily Meeze“ is a short introduction to the 30-minute daily planning session that Charnas recommends as a way to take mise-en-place out of the kitchen and apply it to regular life.
You may be able to figure out your own way to make your “meeze” your own. Think about it.
Another IPS (Inner Peace Symptom): an inclination to try and see whether you can pull something off. [Trying it for yourself can lead to some amazing discoveries.]
I am watching a young friend who’s stuck in a major cycle of suck. He won’t try anything new. I don’t understand why it’s so hard for him, but there it is. He sits around moaning about how his life is not working, but he won’t try doing anything different.
I don’t know. Maybe he took the Icarus story too much to heart. Icarus and his dad, a mythological inventor extraordinaire named Daedulus, were incarcerated in a famously inescapable prison by some king or other.
Daedulus, it says here, invented a way for humans to fly. (This was long before hot air balloons and heavier-than-air planes or anything.)
The inventor and his son, the story goes, strapped on wings made of wax and feathers that Daedulus designed. The wings worked and father and son escaped the fortress strong, but Icarus got so tripped out by the experience that he flew too close to the sun. The wax melted, the wings fell apart, and he crashed.
At this point, the Greek chorus cuts in and dolefully groans out the orthodox lesson: “The gods get angry at those who would dare to fly.” Uh-huh.
(It is worth noting that Daedulus also flew and he got away clean.)
Filmmaker Stanley Kubrick had an interesting take on the Icarus myth. He said, “I’ve never been certain whether the moral of the Icarus story should only be as is generally accepted, ‘don’t try to fly too high,’ or whether it might also be thought of as ‘forget the wax and feathers and do a better job on the wing.'”
Kubrick is famous for directing ground-breaking, innovative films (in their time) like Dr. Strangelove, Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining, and Full Metal Jacket. He was really good at the art of trying something else.
We are, all of us, trained to fit in. The herd is stronger if everybody is all together, doing the same things, following the tried and true is the reasoning. Everybody agrees.
Don’t stand up. Don’t stand out. In Australia, they call it the “tall poppy” problem: Stand out and you’ll be cut down. In Japan they talk about the nail that sticks up. (It inevitably gets pounded down.) Sheesh! Taking a turn off the beaten path engenders dire predictions of eminent doom.
The easiest way to “fit in,” it seems, is not to start anything, not to try anything that is not-like-the-other-guys. It’s also a really good way to get stuck in suck…as my young friend is, unfortunately, finding out. The problem is you can get mired in a miserable bog of your own making that is a lot like being stuck in high school forever.
SEED THOUGHTS AND SUGGESTIONS
The antidote to all the heavy, herd-induced, foot-dragging, haul-that-barge-tote-that-bale mentality is to get into the habit of trying something else. It doesn’t seem to matter what you try, it seems. (Probably, though, experimentation with the latest pharmaceuticals might not be a grand idea.)
Software engineer Matt Cutts is featured in this You-Tube TEDTalk that was published in 2011. In it he advises, “Try something new for 30 days.”
If that sounds like too big a step for you, there’s an even smaller, tiny-step method, all ready-made and on-line.
In this YouTube video by CreativeLIVE, “28 to Make: Create Something New Every Day This Month,” you can join Makers Kate Bingaman-Burt, Ryan Putnam, Erik Marinovich and Lara McCormick in their romp through a series of daily creative project ideas that show up in your mailbox when you sign up for them. It’s a “way to get back into the habit of making cool stuff”, they say.
The book was published in 2000 and has since gone all over the world, being translated into 20 languages and over two dozen printings. It is a wondrous place to put your head if you are wondering what else you could try.
Go on…give these things a shot! Who knows what you might make?
Here’s a poem:
NOT A STORYTELLER
It just keeps going like that:
Erect a new idea and float it –
One more flying castle in the sky –
Then run-run-run to lasso the thing
And anchor it to the ground.
Work your buns off making it come real,
Then watch it crumple one more time
And dodge those stupid falling rocks
Coming down all around you.
The wise ones call it a treadmill, ya know.
I think I’m starting to get it.
That hamster in his cage has nothin’ on me except
The squeaky wheel’s starting to irritate the heck out of me,
And he just keeps on truckin’.
Tell me again, babe: You are doing this…WHY?
Where’d I park my Millenium Falcon?
There has GOT to be a better way to do this.
I think I figured out why I don’t write novels.
I’m not a storyteller, it seems.
My timelines fall apart and nothing makes any sense.
Journalist and radio producer Dave Isay firmly believes that every person has a story to tell, one that the world needs to hear, and he’s been working on figuring out how to gather these stories together so everyone can share in them. It all comes down to taking the time to listen.
THE LOST STORIES
It started, the guy says, when he was a young lad. He was a loner and a nerdy sort who preferred talking to older people.
One time he “interviewed” his grandparents and other family elders gathered for Thanksgiving using an old tape recorder he had found packed away in a box at his grandparent’s house. The old ones were happy to entertain the boy with their stories. He was enthralled and a good time was had by all.
The elders died after a time, he says, and the old tape he had made of their voices telling stories for their young relative was lost. Isay has always regretted that loss.
This animated YouTube video tells that story (in the inimitable StoryCorps style) as an introduction to the ongoing work of the massive oral history project that he initiated.
HEARING THE CALL
Years later, Isay was a 21-year-old, freshly graduated from NYU. He was waffling about whether he really wanted to follow the family tradition of slogging through medical school to become a doctor and took a year off to figure out what he wanted to do. While he was wrestling with that problem the confused young man decided to try his hand at being a journalist.
Isay’s very first attempt at putting together a documentary was for a story about the 1969 Stonewall Riots, a series of violent, spontaneous protests by the LGBT community against an early-morning police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay dance bar, in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.
The raid was part of the constant harassment and bullying the gay community faced during those times. It was a raid just like any other raid, but this time, someone got mad. Someone said, “Enough. Other people joined him. The angry protests spread and the Gay Liberation Movement was born.
In this YouTube video, “Remembering the Stonewall Riots” published in 2013 by Open Road Media, Martin Duberman, author of STONEWALL, talks about the significance of the riots.
Isay was really pleased with his work on that first documentary. It seemed to him that he had found his calling. He withdrew from medical school and started making documentaries. His favorites were about the ones about ordinary people.
The man’s life-work has been built on listening to stories. The company he built, Sound Portraits Productions, is an independent production company dedicated to telling stories about America’s ghettos, prisons and other neglected and hidden American communities in print, on the radio and on the internet. The company mission statement is emblazoned on the bottom of their emails: “Sound Portraits Productions…Documenting a Hidden America.”
IT’S BEEN DONE BEFORE
It’s not a new idea, nor one for which Isay takes credit. Instead he lists the ones he calls his heroes, other documentarians of the disenfranchised and the unheard:
Joseph Mitchel, the New York journalist of salon-keepers and street preachers
Dorethea Lange and Walker Evans, the great WPA photographers
Studs Terkel, oral historian extraordinaire
Alan Lomax, folk-life archivist
Alex Kotlowitz, documentarian of ghetto life.
Sound Portraits Productions went on to create award-winning radio documentaries that were featured on PBS.
Isay has said, “When we feel we’ve succeeded it’s because we’ve managed to expose – truthfully, respectfully – the hidden, forgotten, or under-heard voices of America. And where and when we fail it’s because we’re short of this mark.”
But the little boy who listened wanted to do more. So many people had stories they wanted to tell and the world needed to hear, but there was no way for them to tell the stories. Nobody even knew they were there.
STORYCORPS IS BORN AND GROWS AND GROWS
In October, 2003, the first StoryCorps soundproofed “Story Booth” opened in the Grand Central Terminal in New York City with an open invitation for people to interview one another. Friends, loved ones, even relative strangers were given the chance to conduct 40-minute interviews with help from the StoryCorps facilitators.
Anyone could make an appointment to record a session and it was a free service. One person was the interviewer, the other was the storyteller, relating some aspect of the life they’ve lived. The facilitator helped the participants record the interview.
Tens of thousands of people went for it. The storytellers and their listeners got a safe place where they could hold uninterrupted, meaningful conversations and ask and answer the important questions that very often get lost in the everyday daily grind of life. They also got a copy of the recording as a memento.
Another copy of the recording session was retained by the Story Corps and the stories became a weekly feature of the Morning Edition of NPR (National Public Radio) since 2005. (They’ve also been used to create animated shorts which can be viewed on the NPR website.)
The original Grand Central Station StoryBooth was closed down and a new one erected at Lower Manhattan’s Foley Square in July, 2005.
Meanwhile, that same year, StoryCorps converted two Airstream trailers into mobile recording studios and launched them from the Library of Congress parking lot. They’ve been touring the country ever since.
Here’s a YouTube video published by StoryCorps, “On the Road Since 2015,” that illuminates that story.
A second semi-permanent StoryBooth opened in San Francisco in 2008. Over time, additional booths opened in Atlanta, Chicago, Milwaukee and Nashville as well.
The StoryBooths, both permanent and mobile, were the major collection points for the stories at first, but not everybody could make it to them. The organization developed a couple of community programs to collect these other stories as well.
There’s the “Door-to-Door” service that sends teams of StoryCorps facilitators to temporary recording locations in the United States for several days at a time.
There’s also the “StoryKit” service that was started when the New York booth closed down in 2011 for a time due to a lack of funding. Professional-quality, portable recording devices were shipped to participants around the country for this one.
Another workaround that was developed was the “Do-It-Yourself” service that allowed individuals to download free step-by-step interview instructions, equipment recommendations and a “Great Question” list. This one was for people who wanted to conduct interviews using their own recording equipment.
A DAY FOR LISTENING
In 2008 StoryCorps launched an initiative called “the National Day of Listening” to encourage Americans to record stories with family members, friends and loved ones on Black Friday, the pre-Christmas shopping bonanza that occurs the day after Thanksgiving.
Then in 2015, the day was rebranded as “The Great Thanksgiving Listen” when StoryCorps launched their StoryCorps App. Teams worked with teachers and high school students across the country. The kids interviewed their elders and recorded their stories over the holiday weekend on an app on their smartphones.
The free app was developed by StoryCorps with the support of a 2015 TED Prize and 2014 Knight Prototype Fund award. It allows users to record the interviews on a smartphone. Users can upload their interviews to the StoryCorps.me website.
Over the years, there have been collaborations and initiatives with groups, organizations and institutions from all over the country that target various segments of the American population as well. Stories have been collected from the military, from people suffering memory loss, from Latinos and from African-Americans, from LGBTQ community, from people in prisons and the criminal justice system, and from those personally affected by the events of September 11, 2001.
Also, there’s the StoryCorps Legacy community program which partners with medical and disease specific organizations to provide opportunities for people with serious illness and their relatives to record and share their life story as well.
A LIVING RECORD
With the participants’ permission, the stories collected by all of these efforts (including the ones recorded on smartphones) are archived in the Library of Congress’ American Folklore Center. It constitutes the largest single collection of “born-digital” recorded voices in history. It is a massive living record of American lives by the people who lived it and it is magic.
The stories are slices of life that have been used in a wide range of projects. The collection has been useful as a resource for various researchers in language, speech-recognition, and history among other things..
Over the years StoryCorp founder Dave Isay has published five books full of stories from the collection as well.
One of the participants who conducted an oral-history interview with her grandmother in the Grand Central Station StoryBooth was featured in a Library of Congress blog post about the archive and how it was made.
Sharon DeLevie-Orey explained, “Last year my sister and I came to StoryCorps with my then-91-year-old grandmother. We had this fantastic interview, in which my grandma was candid and funny and loving.
“Yesterday she died. I just took out my StoryCorps CD and noticed the date, a year to the day. Tomorrow will be her funeral. I could only listen to about 20 seconds before bursting into tears,” she says, “but I am so grateful that I have this. Sure, I could have taped her anytime in the last 41 years. But I didn’t. Now the reward is so huge.”
Her conclusion: “Everyone should do StoryCorps—because we don’t live forever.”
Sharon’s story is echoed by many others who have participated in the StoryCorps process as well. For many it was the “best 40 minutes of my life” that added meaning and mana to their ordinary life.
I had a friend who won my admiration because his constant go-to request was always this: “Can I ask a stupid question?” Then he’d ask a question that was A-B-C simple about something I thought I knew.
I’d answer the question (out of my own great wisdom, of course). It made me feel so good to be able to be…uh-hem…The Expert.
My friend Les listened carefully. He’d think on what I said. Then he’d ask more “stupid” questions, helping me explore where my thoughts might lead. One thought would lead to the next and then the next. He’d interject his own insights, showing me that he was listening and appreciating what I had to say. In the discussion that would inevitably follow, with me expounding and him asking more and more questions, a light would start to dawn. Often, I’d reach the limits of my understanding fairly quickly, and still he had more questions.
That’s when the real fun began. Because he brought a little-kid wonder to the exchange and he’d jump in with his own thoughts on the thing, new ideas would start popping up. Often they were things I’d never considered. Les would start grinning wide and bring up another question. He’d get all sparkly and go with the flow of the conversation, interjecting “yes-and” thoughts, building on the mind-construct I would make.
Les had a lot of fun running with ideas. (I guess nobody ever told him that ideas are like scissors and it can be dangerous to run with them. Nobody told him that the ideas can cut you if you’re not careful.)
Our discussions got quite lively. They really were a lot of fun. At the end of all our talk-story, we’d hug each other, hugely satisfied by our game, and go along on our merry ways. And my take-away, always, was another way of seeing the world and more ideas for explorations and moves to try.
I don’t know what he got out of these talks we had, but it sure was a lot of fun.
A MASTER IS ALWAYS AN AMATEUR IN DISGUISE
We are always being told that being a “master” is the pinnacle of our journeys toward Achievement and $ucce$$. It’s the end-all, be-all of the whole thing, they say. Be a Master, Rule the World. R-i-i-ight.
In this YouTube video, “Sarah Lewis: Be a Deliberate Amateur,” which was published by the National Association of Independent Schools in 2015, art historian Sarah Lewis tells us that part of the process of developing Mastery is knowing how to fall back into an I-Don’t-Know state of mind and ask “stupid questions.”
Her book explores the question of how new ideas happen and is a lively and interesting read that has won widespread praise. It mashes history, biography and psychological research together and explores the value of what the wise guys call “Beginner-Mind”. In it, Lewis points out the value of retaining that natural sense of wonder you carried around as a child.
BEGINNER-MIND ON THE RISE
The following YouTube video is a part of a series published by Mindfulnessgruppen, a Stockholm-based company offering courses and trainings based on mindfulness. It features mindfulness researcher Jon Kabat-Zinn exploring the benefits of Beginner Mind, one of what he calls “the nine attitudes of mindfulness.”
Kabat-Zinn’s life-work has been explorations of the mind-body connection and how mindfulness helps promote health and well-being. He’s been credited with bringing the once-obscure concept of Mindfulness into mainstream thought, it says here. After Kabat-Zinn, Mindfulness was no longer just the province of wrinkled, half-naked, bearded old men sitting in caves all blissed-out.
The man has written numerous ground-breaking books in the field, and is Professor of Medicine Emeritus and the creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. As a result of his studies, testing and developing assorted practical applications for his discoveries, Kabat-Zinn figured out a way for people to use mindfulness to help reduce stress. He and his crew teach other people how to do his MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction).
The whole thing is a further iteration of old wisdom that’s been made new and relevant to our own world now.
THE WONDER OF IT ALL
In order to explore ideas to their fullest extent (or at least as far as your own mind can take them), it’s clear that you need to get back to Beginner-Mind. That is the start of it all, it seems.
The very best thing about the Beginner-Mind mindset is the sense of wonder that is a part of our birthright as humans. We can wonder. We can think. We can dream.
This extraordinarily beautiful YouTube video, The Wonder of Life, was published by RedFrost Motivation in 2015. In it, Carl Sagan, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Lawrence Krauss, Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking, some of the best of our scientific thinkers, give us things to ponder while the guys who put together the video blow up our minds big and bigger with out-of-this-world images and heart-expanding music.
My own thought on all of this is that it gets really hard to think small when you figure out that you’re made up of the same stuff as stars and rainbows and butterflies.
It’s been a quiet sort of shift. More and more people are moving away from the “work-and-spend” mentality that characterized the latter half of the last century. They are looking for more meaning to add to their lives, they say.
Gregg Easterbrook, in his book, THE PROGRESS PARADOX: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse, has pointed out, “A transition from material want to meaning want is in progress on an historically unprecedented scale—involving hundreds of millions of people – and may be recognized as the principal cultural development of our time.”
WHY THE SHIFT?
Easterbrook suggests, after delineating assorted studies by the guys who study “happiness,” that the whole mindset centered around material want didn’t actually work so well. The people who got all the stuff they ever wanted or could imagine were not appreciably happier than they were before the stuff showed up.
The problem is, the researchers say, we humans tend to get accustomed to a certain circumstance – good or bad — very quickly. When all of our dreams come true, we start to take for granted all of our fulfilled wishes.
All the wise guys down through the ages tried to warn us: The hunger of our built-in Want Bugs is bottomless. Get the one absolutely gotta-have-it thing today and tomorrow a new gotta-have-it thing will take its place. It’s like all those wants are on some kind of conveyor belt that just keeps turning and churning.
The wise guys told us: The only thing you can do when you’re stuck on a treadmill is to step off. If a lot of people step off the collective treadmill, then it becomes the start of a movement, the start of another cultural iteration.
This curated YouTube video, “Thanks Internet,” published in 2014 by reKindle.org, shows one change that is happening.
The video is a composite of many videos shared on the Internet by the people trying to help make the world a better place for at least one other person. The result is an amazing feel-good bit of work. The non-profit organization posted a message at the end of the video asking that people go do good deeds, take a video and tag it with #reKindleKindness.
They want to do more of videos like this one.
WHAT’S A CULTURE OF MEANING?
All cultures are “meaningful.” How not? They are the products of the minds and the lifestyles of a group of people who all live together in it. The ones that hold the most promise for an individual’s well-being and happiness are the ones that amplify positive values and goals.
Cultures that promote kindness, compassion and love rather than fear, hatred and anger and those that seek to lift up other people rather than inflict harm on them tend to be the ones that grow happy people.
Cultures that cultivate cooperation and participation in something bigger than any one person while tolerating and even honoring individual quirks and idiosyncrasies in its members are more likely to be good for you than those that don’t. We didn’t really need guys in lab coats to tell us that. It’s sort of built into our gut-knowledge.
MEANING IN THE INTERNET AGE
The coolest thing about this postmodern world of ours is our exposure to so many different cultures, sub-cultures, sub-sub-cultures, primal cultures, hybrid cultures, made-up and made-to-order cultures….and so on. We are, in fact, drowning in all this information about all the doings of people around the world.
We can touch the lives of people from around the world. We can build our own community or tribe of folks from around the globe.
We can even go retro and just touch the life of somebody who lives down the street.
Here’s a YouTube video, “Grow Some Good: Maui School Gardens,” that was published in 2013 by Ken Surrey. The video was made by Emmy-winning photographer Jess Craven about how one group of neighbors have built a culture of meaning around the concept of connecting kids to the food they eat by building and supporting school gardens.
The garden featured in the video started with three raised beds and grew, becoming nearly quarter of an acre of food garden and learning lab.
The garden this video spotlights is part of an ongoing project of Grow Some Good, a nonprofit group that has helped to establish food gardens and living science labs in local schools all over the island.
The outdoor classroom lessons support school curriculum in science, math, health and agriculture. The kids study traditional Hawaiian plants and learn the growing practices of native Hawaiians. They also experiment with growing and preparing foods from other cultures as well.
The group builds ongoing community partnerships, recruiting volunteers and supporters that include gardeners and farmers, food educators and assorted businesses as well. Local chefs support the gardens through fundraisers, recipe workshops and harvest parties.
I am remembering the struggle I had as a kid memorizing the words of John Donne’s “No Man Is An Island.” My teacher liked torturing us with all kinds of high-sounding ideas. (I loved her dearly so I gamely tried to not mangle the thing too badly.)
I’ve since learned that Donne was a cleric in the Church of England during the 17th century, who was considered to be one of the leading “metaphysical poets” of the Renaissance era. The poem my teacher made me recite was actually first written by him in 1624 as a prose “meditation”in his DEVOTIONS UPON EMERGENT OCCASIONS.
The Renaissance was another period of incredible change and reawakening, it seems to me. People were searching for meaning and mana in their own ordinary lives back then too.
Confusion and information overload was also a common theme back then. Just as we are experiencing in our time of great change, the culture and mindset a person chose to embrace back then affected the way he or she walked through the world.
I am thinking it would be a good thing, as part of this exploration of meaning and mana, to feature other stories in this thing about the “cultures of meaning” that our neighbors and cousins and friends are getting into. What do you think?
Here’s a poem:
The true, the beautiful, the good…
Entrance and beckon me.
Their light, like a candle glows,
Softly embracing the warm dark
Full of beloved shadows.
The true keeps me grounded
While the beautiful helps me play,
And the good is a quiet beacon
That shows me the best way.
The good, the beautiful, the true:
Without them you get lost.
You nourish others with the good,
The beautiful nourishes you,
And you can keep your feet on the ground,
If you’ll just remember the true.
The three enfold your smallness in one gigantic yes
Gratitude is a choice, but why would you choose it?
In recent years there have been systematic scientific studies of gratitude and its positive effects. These studies show that grateful people are happier, more open and sociable, less depressed and neurotic and express higher levels of satisfaction with their lives and relationships.
Grateful people also show higher levels of growth and self-acceptance and stronger coping skills for challenges and set-backs.
The ones who carry on with master motivation speaker Zig Ziglar’s “attitude of gratitude” mindset share a greater willingness to seek out help from others. They spend more time planning how to address issues. They demonstrate the ability to interpret challenging events in ways that help them grow.
Here’s the late Zig Ziglar at his best in a YouTube video published by Rising Tide. His anecdote about an unhappy, vitriolic woman who hated her job and what happened to her when she chose gratitude is eye-opening.
“You can’t change other people,” Ziglar points out. “You can only change yourself.”
WHAT’S NOT TO LIKE?
Here’s another interesting take on gratitude. This “Experiment In Gratitude” You-Tube video was put together by SoulPancake for their “The Science of Happiness” project. It was created by Mike Bernstein and Matt Pittman.
The biggest takeaway from this thing is the thought that the person who was least happy that day experienced the greatest rise in felt happiness. That’s a powerful thing.
SoulPancake is a digital media and production company that “creates content that explores life’s big questions, celebrates humanity, and champions creativity with integrity heart and humor,” it says on their Facebook company overview.
Named one of FastCompany’s Top 10 Most Innovative Video Companies of 2015, they target the “Optimistic Millenial.” Their work has something for all of us, I am thinking. Among their series of more than thirty assorted video formats are sprightly-named things like “Kid President,” “What She Said,” “Highly Evolved Human,” and “Metaphysical Milkshake.”
Taking stock of the many people, experiences and things that are good, right and working well in our lives is uplifting. Apparently, elevating your awareness of what’s right with the world rather than focusing on what’s wrong, you come to realize that happiness really is already right there, all around you.
An attitude of gratitude also has an uncanny way of attracting more good to you. What we focus on grows, and focusing on simple pleasures – on the good we are experiencing here, now, today – can work wonders.
In this YouTube video, “Contentment and Gratitude,” Ramsey is doing one of his annual Thanksgiving radio broadcasts. He lays out the arguments for carrying an attitude of gratitude around with you. As he points out in the video, helping grateful people makes other people happy and they tend to go out of their way to help some more.
WHAT YOU FOCUS ON GROWS
What you focus on grows. You can consciously focus on what you’re thankful for rather than on what frustrates you. If you maintain positive thoughts and grow a positive mental attitude, if you consistently engage in positive action, then eventually it becomes easier and easier to be a positive person.
Life milestones are great. Hammering your latest goal, receiving some coveted prize, getting rewarded for the hard work you’ve put in, getting that house or car or latest electronic wonder you’ve been drooling over…all of these things are worth celebrating.
However, celebrating these life milestones is not a substitute for a foundation of gratitude that leads us to more consistent happiness.
EXERCISES FOR YOU TO TRY
MAKE A LIST. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yet another list. Every day (either in the morning when you first get up or in the evening before going to bed), write down three things for which you are grateful. Just three. Every day.
I’ve done it both ways. If you do it in the morning, your day starts out suddenly brighter and more shiny. If you do it just before going to sleep, then sleep comes easier and when you wake up the list is right there waiting to remind you of the good things in your life. A bonus, two-for-the-price-of-one move.
PUMP OUT THE JUICE. Take the time to express something beyond a generic thank-you. Personalize your authentic gratitude. Share your appreciation for somebody’s unique qualities and their specific impact on your life.
Mix up your heart in it. What comes from the heart will hit another heart. Do that. (It’s a good thing.)
CELEBRATE THANKSGIVING 365. On his Thanksgiving radio shows, Dave Ramsey asks his callers to share one thing for which they are grateful before they can ask their questions or address their concerns. This “tradition” might be a good thing to try your own self.
Before every evening meal, at the end of the day, whether you are alone or with someone, think on some things for which you’re grateful. If you’re with other people, share your best good thing and get them to share theirs as well. Ask, “What’s one good thing that happened today? What are you grateful for?”
Make it a ritual. It will go a long way to help diffuse the stresses of the day and to reconnect to each other as well as help prepare your bodies to enjoy the food before you. (After all, as some guy in yet another lab coat will probably tell you, bodies that are relaxed digest food better.)
Here’s a poem:
Hanging ten on the edge of dissolution,
Staring into the maw of the Creative Dark, po panopano.
Another IPS (Inner Peace Symptom): an understanding that action and failure are two sides of the same coin. [The trick is to use failure as a signal for a course correction rather than as a stop sign….]
This book grew out of the transcript of a commencement address by Pema Chodron, the American Buddhist nun who is also a best-selling author of many wisdom books. Her teachers have included master Tibetan lamas, Dzigar Kontrul Rinpoche and Sakyong Mipham Rimpoche as well as the late Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. At various times since she became a nun in 1981, she served as the director of Karma Dzong in Boulder, Colorado and as the director of Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia.
The speech from which the book was made was a promise fulfilled. When her granddaughter Alexandria entered Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, Ani Chodron told the girl she would give the commencement address when the Alexandria graduated. This was a large gift.
When her granddaughter graduated in 2014, Chodron presented this speech. It is based on a quote from Samuel Beckett who advised, “Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
In this clip from an Oprah Winfrey Network “SuperSoul Sunday” episode published as a YouTube video in that same year, Chodron tells a little bit about the speech.
The book that was made from the speech is a graceful, simple thing, but, as is true of a lot of Chodron’s work, the information in it is layered, and it unpacks beautifully.
AN OLD STORY
My favorite bit is when Chodron tells an old Chinese story about an old farmer with a beautiful stallion and a strong and strapping son, both of whom are precious to him.
One day the horse runs away and the farmer’s wife and all their friends in the village moan and groan and tell each other how terrible it is. The old man says, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”
The next day the horse returns home with a wild mare. The farmer’s wife and the villagers celebrate and tell each other what a grand thing it is. Now the farmer and his wife have two horses. The old man says, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”
The following day, the son decides to try and tame the wild mare. The horse throws him off her and his leg is broken. His wife and the villagers wail. It is a catastrophe! The old man says, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”
The day after that, the Chinese army comes through the village and conscripts all of the able-bodied men in the village to fight in the latest war. The son, with his broken leg, stays home….well, you know what the farmer’s wife and the villagers said. You know what the old man said.
That’s where the old story ends, but you do get the feeling that it probably goes on like that over and over again, ad infinitum, with the old man saying, “Maybe yes, maybe no” while the people around him mill about and react emphatically to every circumstance and situation.
Chodron advises the students to take the old man as a model as they go out into the world to meet whatever is out there for them. She tells them, “If you can just remember the old man and what he had to say about what is happening, you’ll remember that you never know where something will lead.”
Her whole point is that we live in the middle of the Great Mystery. Nobody knows where life will take us. Nobody knows how we will grow and develop from moment to moment.
The nun tells the graduating class that it’s a good thing to get curious about your outer circumstances and notice how they impact your internal talk. That internal talk will be what you carry around with you and it does impact what you do in the world.
Each of us is part of a continuing saga and it sometimes goes well for us and sometimes not. Nobody can know what happens next. It unfolds.
Chodron advises that if you can avoid getting caught up or lost in the storyline, then there is the possibility that you will learn something about Mystery and about your own self. You might even get to a space where you can stand still long enough in the rawness and vulnerability of what you feel to actually be able to get past it gracefully and learn the lessons each episode has for you.
From this space, you will be able to communicate the lessons you’ve learned from that to other people. The event and your feelings about them become a door to a space where you can build something new.
The key to getting into that space where creativity and making can happen is to get curious. To notice what is happening inside you as well as what is happening outside in the world. To stand up again after you fall down. To try again. To “fail better,” as Beckett says.
This YouTube video, “Get Curious,” published by Sounds True, is a part of Chodron’s speech at the university.
AFTER THE TALK, MORE TALK
After the speech, Chodron agreed to a follow-up interview with Sounds True publisher Tami Simon. This interview, which is another rarity for Chodron, is included in the book. The teaching unpacks the points Chodron makes in her speech and also offers valuable strategies for working with the outer circumstances of your life to help develop your own inner strength and to reaffirm your own inner goodness.
At one point in all this Ani Pema says, “Failure opens an unguarded, vulnerable and wide open space. And from that space the best part of ourselves come out.”
She goes on to explain how the process works and how it feels from the inside.
At the end, Chodron and Simon agree, there is only “Forward.”
My favorite quote from the FAIL, FAIL AGAIN, FAIL BETTER is this: “Failing better means that failure becomes a rich and fertile ground instead of just another slap in the face.”
I do recommend that you get this book. The lady is wise.
Thanks for your visit. I’d appreciate it if you’d drop a comment or note below and tell me your thoughts.
Chodron keeps pointing out that it’s never a one-shot deal. There will be many opportunities for failure and many ways to fall down. The trick is to work on learning how to use the failures and handle them in better ways. Save
There used to be a thing called “spare time” which was greatly anticipated and enjoyed by those who had it. It was the time we had available to do other things than work, developing our hustle-muscle, or striving for S.M.A.R.T. goals.
Spare time nourished us and kept us engaged and enjoying life. Spare time helped us to thrive in the middle of Life’s inevitable obstacles and challenges. We were able to find meaning and mana in our ordinary lives because of our spare time.
Where did all the spare time go?
THE RISE OF HURRY SICKNESS
For many people it’s become a point of pride and a badge of honor now to be “Crazy Busy.” The adrenaline rush of speeding through many tasks and communications can be addictive. It feeds our illusion that we are always in high demand, that we’re conquering new territory and moving toward something grand.
The breath-taking pace of technological breakthroughs that help us feed our addiction for effortless speed and “saving time” and keeping up with the all of everything while checking off to-do lists, hammering goals and piling up accomplishments is revved up and running, raining down every progressive technological wonder upon us and we are entranced.
Along with all the joys and blessings of our rapidly expanding technology, assorted researchers tell us, we are apparently experiencing an epidemic of “Hurry Sickness.”
THE MIND-BODY CONNECTION
Hurry Sickness is not some newly discovered phenomenon. The term was first coined by cardiologist Dr. Meyer Friedman.
Dr. Friedman and his colleague Dr. Ray Rosenman shared a cardiology practice in San Francisco in the 1950’s. They began studying and writing about the link between behavior and heart disease. Their then-controversial work introduced the concept of the mind-body connection that is still being investigated and explored by researchers today.
The doctors’ observations were published in a popular 1974 book, TYPE A BEHAVIOR AND YOUR HEART. It was the start of a whole new field of study for behavior researchers as well as a way to explain a lot about the consequences of human behavior on physical, emotional and mental well-being to the general public.
It started to turn the focus of their studies towards ways that people could help themselves look for and find ways to greater personal happiness.
“Type A personality” soon became a popular buzzword to describe the driven, tenacious and relentless strivers who were likely to snarl at slow-moving salesclerks and other minions, who were compulsive multi-taskers extraordinaire and often prone to road rage. More easy-going folks were categorized as “The Type B personality.”
Friedman’s life work was trying to get people with a Type A personality to behave more like people with Type B personality. He came up with a therapy regimen that was meant to modify Type A behavior.
As the good doctor was fond of reiterating, “You can’t change personalities. We just try for more B-like behavior.”
HURRY SICKNESS AND YOU
A YouTube Video published by the London School of Business, “Do You Suffer From Hurry Sickness?“ points out some of the less-extreme symptoms of Hurry Sickness observed by Richard Jolly, a London Business School professor and business coach.
According to Jolly, about 95 percent of the managers he has studied suffer from the illness, which has been defined as the constant need to do more, faster (even when there’s no objective reason to be in such a rush).
Some of Hallowell’s thoughts from the book are presented in this YouTube video, uploaded in 2006 by simplyab.
As Hallowell says in his book, “When we work too fast for too long we get tired, become inefficient, make mistakes, and become unable to think clearly and sharply.”
ANOTHER HIGH-STRESS SCENARIO
Our bodies and minds aren’t meant to endure continual stress. We get irritable, easily angered and upset from frustration and exhaustion.
Hurry sickness increases the body’s output of the stress hormone cortisol, which suppresses the immune system and has been linked with heart disease. Blood pressure spikes and eventually remains at an elevated level. Hearts wear out.
Chronic stress has also been found to trigger allergies, arthritis, obesity, diabetes, depression, anxiety, insomnia, and loss of appetite…it says here. Running all-out frantic is generally not good for health, productivity or happiness.
When our bodies and our minds stay in a constant state of overstimulation, it’s like being surrounded by lions and tigers and bears that work in shifts. Survival becomes the order of the day.
When you’re too busy, you don’t do anything well. Relationships suffer. Performance at work and productivity suffers.
As Jolly points out, when you are caught up in all of the minutiae of being connected every minute of the day and night, you cannot take the time to slow down a bit and ask the big, really important questions. You get too frazzled to entertain any creative thoughts.
Worst of all, you don’t enjoy life. How? You’re too busy flying from one thing to the next and you just haven’t got the time. If unchecked, studies have shown, all this jittering can lead to burn-out and depression.
Hurry sickness is not limited to executives and entrepreneurs.
A classic baby boomer children’s book, HURRY HURRY by Edith Thacher Hurd with old-timey illustrations by her husband Clement was a favorite of my children. In it, a nanny Miss Muggs who is always in a great hurry comes to stay with Suzie while her parents are away. Little Suzie gets pulled along faster and faster as the nanny’s great hurry leads from one disastrous situation to steadily worse ones.
[The Hurds were one of the children’s literature’s best-known teams in their time. The book was part of the “I Can Read” book series published by Harper Books. It came out in 1960 and it’s still a grand read.]
SEED THOUGHTS AND SUGGESTIONS
For real, it is surprisingly simple to overcome Hurry Sickness. The thing is, it ain’t easy.
The main thing to understand is the wise guys were right. There are just three things that can help you reach your freedom from busy:
Discernment (also known as asking the right questions)
Clarity (also known as deciding what and who are most important and necessary for happiness in your life)
Selectivity (also known as choosing to say “yes” to what is important to you, and “no” to everything else)
In later posts, I’ll be exploring these three. I’ll present exercises and such that you can try to help mitigate the effects of Hurry Sickness. There are all kinds of neat mind-games you can try. Some of them may work for you.
In the meantime, here’s a list of assorted books that you might like to explore: