Chapter 3: Everyone is a genius

“Everyone is a genius.  But if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid” – A. Einstein

I love this quote and the funny picture of Einstein riding his bike that comes with the quote (thanks to whoever posted this on Facebook). Yeah, yeah, yeah- I know it is cliché to quote Einstein, but when you read the quote and let it marinate for a minute, I think you’ll understand why I enjoy it so much.

As I look back over the last year of my life it continues to amaze me how I struggle to so plainly see the mistakes I repeat and even more disturbing is recognizing that I might be the fish who is being asked (and judged) by my ability to climb a tree.  Here is a journal entry fromMay 2, 2011:

When people ask me what I do for a living, I struggle to answer.  What I’d like to say is…I’m a guy who works to make the world a more balanced place.  I give structure to fathers who lack it and enable more families to spend time together.  I write, speak and coach about topics that other fathers use to “decompress” and awaken to the fact that we aren’t here solely for work.  Although we may have been conditioned to be ‘absent’ in order to focus on earning money for our families, we are being trapped into believing that work is the benchmark for defining our lives and if we aren’t careful, we’ll expect our children to mimic our lives and define themselves by the job they have, the hours they’ve worked and the W-2 they produce.

I don’t think this feeling is foreign to the majority of people who would read this article and I’m confident that we’ve all struggled with feeling like the “fish out of water” with respect to some aspect of life; work, a new relationship, a new school, a new job and the list could go on and on.  For the last 16 years I have been working in a business that requires a strong knowledge of human behaviour and a business that demands a knack for anticipating how people will react during stressful and anxiety filled times.  Suffice it to say, I feel very comfortable with identifying other people’s problems, am getting better at identifying my own, and am still well below average when it comes to learning from the struggles I live every day and finding ways to apply them to the management of my own life.

So back to Einstein’s “fish” quote…I’m married to a teacher, am the son of a teacher, have a brother who is a teacher and both of my sisters-in-law are teachers, so I have the opportunity to listen to each of them talk through their educational styles and we openly discuss how challenging it can be to educate in a “one style fits all” methodology.  It doesn’t take heavy research to recognize that we have a systemic challenge when it comes to educating and some of this challenge fosters people feeling “stupid” when in fact they are truly geniuses (fish) being asked to climb the proverbial tree.  Think about how we begin our formal education.  We meander through elementary and middle school, get more focused in high school and then we get the first real “tests” that help define us (SAT & ACT).  We take those test scores, compare and contrast them with that funny thing called a GPA and this becomes the first major indicator of our initial genius factor, right?  In short, we begin to sort the masses into one of two piles; the “going to make it” pile or the “might not be that bright” pile. 

Yes, I know that we aren’t quite that cold as a society, but it isn’t that far off.  I have friends who were told they weren’t going to cut it, maybe they shouldn’t pursue college and the assembly line was going to be a good spot for the remainder of their working days (all because of 1 or 2 learning measures) and conversely, I had friends who were labelled the “bright ones”, the kids who really knew how to learn and the ones who were going to be our nation’s next generation of leaders (again, all because of 1 or 2 learning measures).  I’m sure it wouldn’t shock you to know that plenty of these kids who were told to “hit the assembly line” now successfully run profitable businesses and manage organizations in the Fortune 500 and there were kids who were defined as “the bright ones” who are now leading from a bar stool wondering where life went.

In both scenarios, did these young men and women get judged by how well they could “climb a tree” when their real gift might have been swimming like a fish?  As we migrate into our work lives, the same archaic talent management process repeats itself.  There are certain people who just “get it” when it comes to new challenges, new projects and new responsibilities.  These people seem to have a natural gift for managing the ebb and flow of the business world and their counterparts are the people who need to have their hands held a bit.  They need some more pointed coaching, education and if this is afforded, they’ll perform (sometimes outperform) the folks who ‘naturally’ learn.  I think we, as business leaders, tend to forget how critical it is to recognize how people learn (auditory, experiential, visual…) and how to align their natural skills to the organization, projects or tasks they might be asked to support. 

Einstein’s quote, when applied to how we interact and educate each other through life, could help reduce anxiety and should significantly elevate the engagement of people relative to their personal and professional lives.  I look back on the times I’ve been the most engaged, the most energized and the most productive and it’s when I’m using my natural talents.  This helps foster drive and passion and I’m sure Einstein knew that there were areas even he wasn’t meant to spend time on.  Each one of us can find our natural talents if we have the self awareness to define our strengths and the courage to teach and the humility to ask for help and the willingness to learn from those around us.

We all have genius inside us, so don’t let one task define who you are or how well you can perform in life.

Chapter 2: Is there a creature living in your basement?

In case you missed the last entry, my writing comes from a place that requires openness and honesty (and a little bit of craziness).  It comes from a place that is a bit scary, in that, I’m sharing struggles, self defined failures and some successes to entice other people to begin sharing their challenges too, with the ultimate realization that all of us have similar struggles (whether it be with relationships, work, parenting, or whatever else life might throw at you).  This place of introspection has been good for me and challenging, but that’s the fun of it.  I like situations that have a pinch of chaos and I think a little chaos is good for us.  I’m conducting my own analysis on life and re-reading a journal I’ve been writing in for the last 9 months, so I can take some of my experiences and share them with the hope that I’d spark conversations, offer help, or at least a good laugh to anyone going through similar.

Thematically, my life has more fear than I’d like to admit.  This fear was more difficult to deal with when I thought I was alone in these thoughts, but I’m observing more and more that most people are living in a similar state of fear.  Yes, this is a topic I wrote about in months passed and it’s a topic that I’ll continue to write about because I’m passionate about it.  It’s an interesting experience (being scared or fearful) and we live with it most of our lives.  Alright, here’s an example; flash back to your childhood for a minute…Mom or Dad screams for you to run to the basement and get something from the freezer or maybe you have to get clothes from the dryer, but nonetheless, off you tromp to the “dark, quiet and eerie” basement.

As you step into the basement, you rationalize with yourself that nothing lives in your basement.  At least nothing that should be able to eat, gnaw or nibble on you- but all of those movies, stories and books you’ve experienced begin to push a bit of adrenaline into your veins and you realize that you are “scared” of that dark nasty basement.  Oh well, you can push through it, right?  You run into the basement, grab whatever you need and then turn to run up the stairs and back to the light and freedom of the first floor of your house.  And what do you do?  I can tell you what you don’t do… for the love of God, you don’t look over your shoulder because that creature that lives in the basement will be standing right behind you on the steps, right?  You bolt, like lighting, up to safety and what happens?  Your fear dissipates.  All of that drama for a freaking pair of jeans out of the dryer.  Interesting though, that kind of fear makes us active, doesn’t it?  When we get scared we either fight or flight (so say the great psychologists), and in the end…we “do” something and that action helps us move passed the fear.

That is healthy fear and I’ve been taught that there are two types of fear.  We should expect to live with some level of fear in life and the trick is to learn how to anticipate that fear, know how our bodies will react to the fear and then work out methods to “push through” or tackle those fears that present problems for us in life.  That, in my opinion, is healthy fear (like the troll who lived in my parent’s basement who chased us up the steps).  He was good people because the fear he helped to generate got us moving.

As we get older, I’ve watched my own life and have read entries from my journal that allude to a more powerful and dangerous fear.  This is a fear that paralyzes activity.  It’s the fear you might get from thinking you’ll fail at something and the fear that comes from wondering what others might “say” about your failed attempt.  With enough of that fear in your life, what happens? You stop attempting.  With respect to work- maybe you stop taking on larger projects for the “fear” of putting yourself in a situation to fail or maybe you refuse to show your true personality for fear that it might not be welcomed.

I spent the first 13 years of my career steadily progressing, earning more money, earning fancy titles and the entire time I was “struggling” daily.  Freaked out about what might happen or where I might fail and you know what I’ve learned…it held me back.  The times in life when I have acted from a genuine place and refused to show concern of outcome were some of the best and most productive projects, meetings, coaching sessions or emotional states I’ve ever been involved with.  I recognized in early April that my new role, which was supposed to be a “walk in the park” and a career move that would enable me some time to step away from the high paced stress I’d faced in my previous positions, wasn’t going to be much different than anything else I’ve faced professionally.  Our processes, national structure and challenging market were all going to require “action” and my early concern about taking a perceived “step back” might backfire (if I wasn’t successful) and I’d look like a fool.  All of this thought and fear created a paralyzing feeling, which generated anxiety.  I knew that letting emails pile in, meetings back up and not moving forward would hurt me, so I started to organize myself, created action lists and I focused on moving forward, one step at a time. 

Remember, action can remedy fear all day long and I captured a thought that verifies this onApril 11, 2011:

 “I’m getting less and less nervous about work as I realize that sometimes you just have to jump in and do something…it doesn’t pay off to plan and plan and plan, at some point, you have to “do”.  When in doubt, do something because this activity or action gives off energy of purpose and it helps with the anxiety of new tools, new people, new technology…so off I go.”

I have read hundreds of my own entries and each time there is a down turn or negativity with respect to my emotional state, it can be tied back to stagnate behaviour.  I believe this is something all of us have experienced, but few will be willing to openly admit.  Most people will pretend to be “active”, but I’m talking about being active with a purpose.  When you have a direction to go, a place to get to…it becomes very easy to map out where you’re headed, find the mechanism to get you there and GO.  But life…it doesn’t regularly show you where you are going and that’s where people get confused.  They question where they should be going, what they should be doing and all of this wonder can lead to less and less activity. 

I carry a bookmark and it has a quote from Socrates, “Wisdom begins in wonder”, which is something of a personal mantra.  The one thing I would add to his philosophical point…don’t forget to make a plan of where that wonder is going to take you and then build that mental map of how you are going to get there and finally, as a good friend of mine used to say… “Do something”, because standing around is only going to let the creature in the basement bite you on the ass.

Chapter 1: Where it comes from…

I mentioned in my last post that I’ve been writing in a journal (daily), so I could look back and capture “trends” around my thoughts and actions and potentially find ways to look a bit deeper into how I parent, how I act as a husband, brother, son and any of the other roles I have in life.  I’ve struggled, like most of us probably do, with healthy living, parenting, friendships and marriage, so I wanted to turn inward and see how interesting it might be to reflect back on a year in my life.  As I look back on this year of entries, it was, at a minimum…eye opening.

Reading my journal was more challenging than I expected it to be.  This stuff isn’t easy to read because you create unfiltered thoughts while writing in a journal versus throwing something on a site like this one.  There is no editing while you journal, no deleting and definitely no “starting over”.  The words and thoughts are dumped onto a page and then they are locked away.  I write each morning and try and clear all of the thoughts, emotions, and mental states from the previous day; capturing them for future review.  The raw nature of the words can be fun to re-read, but the thought of sharing them with other people wasn’t as pleasant.  A friend from work popped into my office the other day and noticed I’d been writing and she asked what I was doing, so I shared the concept.  She immediately went for the journal and asked if she could read some of the entries and I threw her the “heisman” and pulled the journal out of her hands.

The second she touched the journal, I barked, “Not a chance” and pulled the journal back from her.  As I threw the journal into a drawer in my office, I vividly remembered all of the things I’d wrote over the last 9 months; work, marriage, parenting and my successes and failures with each.  The thought of someone else reading those thoughts made me incredibly anxious.  The articles that are posted on my site have gone through heavy editing and most of the stories are opinions of mine, but not necessarily direct stories, so sharing more of my mental gore is a bit intimidating.  I know some of my articles can be repetitive and they might not be offering enough advice or guidance, so when I reconsidered adding more of my journal’s thoughts to these articles, it was exciting because I’m planning on taking what I’ve already lived through and throw it out for the review of others (and maybe some learning & teaching will come along the way).

Overall, this is why I titled this first “chapter”, where it all comes from…

When we talk about living life, most of us aren’t comfortable with sharing all the little details like I am.  Who wants to share the things they are scared of, the areas where they feel like they fall short or the behaviours they are no longer proud of?  This, for me, is where the core of my writing comes from and I’ve been coached to no longer be afraid of sharing some of this content.  As a matter of fact, sharing the good or the bad has been a huge help for me and the honesty around life’s fears and shortcomings have enabled me to do some things differently and learn that lots of other people experience exactly what I’ve lived through.  This is where I want people to engage.  I want more discussions about the challenges in life, because we can help each other.  I believe these fears prohibit us from sharing how we feel or discussing areas we’d like to change.  These changes can be used in your professional life, your personal life, with friends or with strangers.  The amount of fear I see in people is growing and this fear is still present in my life (I’ve seen it as a trend in my journal entries).  In reality, how many of use really “share” the details of what we are feeling or why we are feeling a certain way or how an experience might make us feel?  It’s these feelings of fear or anxiety that prevent most people from being truly authentic and I witness all types of people struggle with it.

Take this journal entry fromApril 8, 2011and you’ll see what I mean; 

“Reality…I’m not a huge fan of doing what I do for a living, but without work what do we do?   I’m not overly excited about how I treat my marriage, I’m concerned about my parenting style- I’m so freaking inconsistent with the kids- and I keep looking ahead in life, you know, “what’s next”… but haven’t ever afforded myself the time to stay focused in the present, which leads me down the path of taking things for granted, wanting what other people have and it disables me from being  focused on any specific life area to really tap into the balance and positive energy I’m seeking.”

That is about as honest as I can be as it relates to how I was feeling in April of this year.  Yes, it freaks me out a bit to put some of that in writing, but I think the value in this honesty is important.  What I do for a living, the way I handle my marriage, my parenting and my daily responsibilities are in my control, aren’t they?  I had someone push me a few years ago during a coaching session and it came out that one of my personal concerns was acting and living like everything was “great” when I felt inside like I was falling apart.  I call it the “bullshit” factor (what if I’m not as smart as I think I am, what if I’m not as successful in my career as I’ve led people to believe or what if I really am a bad parent or husband?).  My internal thoughts conflicted with my external presentation and that created serious personal struggle.  Smile on the outside, anger on the inside.  As my coach listened, she simply responded with, “well…if you were “less intelligent” or “weak as a professional” or “a bad parent or husband”, wouldn’t you want to know?  

As simple the statement was, she was right.  Sharing these types of fears will help you face some of those hidden challenges.  If you do nothing else in life, please try and be honest with yourself and be willing to address those things that concern you (and include the people involved who you are comfortable with or find a coach or therapist to confide in) and be willing to adjust your behaviours if you do, in fact, want adjusting.  If you don’t like the way something is going in life, you have the ability to adjust, modify and change it. 

What I don’t recommend is continuing to hide from these fears, which I have done (as you’ll read in future posts), because it will ultimately lead to more anxiety and frustration.  And…don’t fall prey to the theory of; doing the same thing every day and expecting different results (this will only lead to insanity).  I have found that writing, talking and expressing these fears helps me locate others who have the same challenges and we can share ideas on how to better improve our situations.  Whether it’s a new career (or reinvention of the one you have), or the thought of being a more involved parent, or to be a better friend to those around you…each of these facets of life can be altered if you build a plan and focus on the change.

This is where it all comes from…my desire to share failure and challenge is rooted in the hope that others can learn the power of sharing too and maybe all of us will be better off for it.