How to Climb a Mountain

“Take a look back … the view is spectacular,” my husband Dave suggested as I stopped in the middle of the path, sure I was about to pass out or fall backwards down the mountain. I was about a third of the way up the Bump and Grind and all I could see was the long path ahead of me.

“I can’t look now,” I sputtered. “I’ve got too far to go,” while thinking to myself that I wished I had never agreed to this … I wasn’t ready and it was too hard.  But I couldn’t really turn around now as I was deathly afraid of going down the steep side. I knew that if I got to the top I could descend on the less steep side.

I set off again on a mission to get to the top as fast as I could. And then stopped again, thinking I would pass out or fall. And then set off again … and, well, you get the picture. I did eventually get to the top and take a look down … it was spectacular and I was very proud that I had challenged myself to do this hike when I wasn’t entirely ready!

It seems to me this experience is a perfect metaphor for life. We can never be quite prepared to take on a challenge. All we can do is keep taking a step at a time (which BTW was what I kept telling myself on the way up. Just one more step, just one more step …) and eventually we will tackle that tough challenge.

But, while hiking down the gradual slope, I realized that I had missed out on a lot by my impatient, goal driven approach. I was trying to go too fast and it was taxing both my leg muscles and lung capacity too much. I also needed to give myself permission to stop occasionally, look around, enjoy what I was seeing AND celebrate the fact that I had made it that far. I really didn’t enjoy my trip up the mountain.

I see this all the time in my coaching practice. People striving for goals, trying to go too fast, not stopping to appreciate what they’ve experienced, not reflecting on what they’ve learned, or not celebrating what they’ve accomplished to that point. It robs them, just as it robbed me, of the joy in the journey.

So the next time you’re impatient to reach a goal, resist your urges and stop to take a look around. You just never know what you might discover about yourself or others.

3 Tips for Putting Down Your Armour

It seems a natural response to being hurt, facing challenges or experiencing unexpected tragedy is to respond with fear and anger and armour up. Armouring up can be anything from “From now on I copy everyone in on my emails to cover my butt.” to “I will not share anything authentic with you again.” to “I’m going to isolate myself from others.”

But research is clear about the role of optimism in resilience. While these armouring up responses are normal, it’s when they become a long term habit that our overall wellness, effectiveness and satisfaction with life can be affected.

While some people seem to be more naturally optimistic, there are times when all of us need to be intentional about it. Here are three practices I use to put down my armour:

  1. Lighten up. Lightening up means that we don’t take ourselves seriously and we put things into perspective, hopefully finding humour in situations. While that may not always be possible in extremely distressing situations, it can also mean giving yourself permission to “park the issue” even if it’s for a short time. This gives your brain a chance to get out of fight or flight. To lighten up, practice the “pause.” When you find yourself overly stressed, anxious, serious, in a rush, etc, take a deep breath, pause for 4 seconds, name what you are experiencing and then ask yourself a question to shift into more optimism. Some of my favorites are “Will this be important a year from now?” “Can I do anything about this?” “Can I invest my energy into something more important or positive?”
  2. Reframe. Reframing means that we interpret and make meaning of our experiences in a way that is optimistic. Resilience researchers followed children raised in neglect or abuse over a long period of time to see how they fared as adults. Those who did well (lived productive happy lives) did not attach the same meaning to their earlier experiences as those who continued in a cycle of neglect and abuse. The “stories” we tell ourselves about what happens to us can be even more important and crucial in determining how we do than what actually happened to us in the moment. Those children who were able to reframe their early childhood as learning experiences that helped them develop their strength and confidence did better than those who told a story of how their early childhood damaged them. Reframing also relates to how we think about things that didn’t go right for us, or failures. Resilient people are able to reframe mistakes or failures as opportunities to learn or create something different in their lives.
  3. Develop a daily ritual that facilitates connection to yourself, others, nature. Some of the things I do are to write down 3 things I appreciate or am grateful for, go for walks, review my file of thank yous from others, watch uplifting videos or read something uplifting, and send a text or email of appreciation to someone. I find that doing this helps me to lean more towards optimism than pessimism, put down my armour and connect to others in a meaningful way.

What are the strategies you use to put down your armour and develop your optimism?

This blog is the A in our PAUSE model of resilience – Active Optimism. Watch for the U in a future blog!!

Go Where You’re Loved

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I remember listening to an author once (sorry I can’t recall who it was!) who was asked about how she dealt with critics of her work. She replied, “I go where I am loved.” Most of us already have really well developed inner critics and so we don’t need to seek them out. Going where we are loved to find an audience for our work and our style (whatever work that might be!), leaves more energy to continue developing ourselves. Continually going down a path with people who don’t appreciate who we are leaves us demotivated, uninspired and worn out. Find those who love you and nurture them!

There’s Always Downward Dog

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I’ve done several 30 day challenges related to blogging and drawing over the past few years and on January 1, I decided to go in a different direction with yoga.

I chose yoga for 2 reasons, to increase my flexibility and become more mindful, as my past forays into meditation weren’t all that successful! Today, day 24, I came to the following insights:

  1. Yoga slows me down for at least a few minutes every day.
  2. I’m getting out of my head (a big relief trust me!) and into my body.
  3. I do feel more calm, more centered and more optimistic after I’ve done it.
  4. I feel I’ve made progress on something every day which might not be what true yoga practitioners would say is the point of yoga. I have so many big abstract projects, however, that accomplishing this one little thing a day is comforting.

It seems to me these are all great leadership practices as well. Yoga doesn’t have to be your thing but what do you do to slow down, get out of your head, become more centered and make progress everyday?

Antidote to Cynicism

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We had just spent two days with a very diverse group of participants facilitating a Future Search process and had asked for closing comments. I was struck by two of them:

“I am excited by what we have created and feel hope for our future.”

“If you all follow through on the projects we identified, things might change.”  

The second comment struck me as somewhat cynical and it got me thinking about what distinguishes hope from cynicism. As I reflected on how these two people had participated in the two days and thought about other situations, four themes emerged:

Own your part – Hopeful people own their role in situations, both the good and the bad, and don’t look to others to “fix things.” Cynical people only own the good, are oblivious to the bad, and expect others to “fix things” for them.

Assume good intent – Hopeful people trust that others are doing the best they can, while cynical people assume others are out to make their lives miserable.

Accept reality – Hopeful people don’t sugarcoat or assume doom and gloom, they accept current circumstances and don’t wish they were different. Cynical people are always searching for some perfect condition that is different from the current one.

Give – Hopeful people give their time, energy and resources to others without condition. Cynical people wait for others to give to them.

As we approach the holiday season, are you hopeful or cynical? Which of these four areas might hold insight for you?

From Knowing About to Living

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One of my early careers was a high school English teacher. Back in 1984, some of the things I was doing really rattled the older teachers. I wanted my students to enjoy and live the importance of the subject, not just tolerate it. So I created English projects, and encouraged students to engage more than just their heads.

The most memorable project came from a group of three grade 12 English boys who were not great students in the traditional sense. They were in the “vocational” stream. They struggled with the traditional school format and were learners who needed to engage in a different way. We were studying Death of a Salesman, and they wrote and performed a song about Willy Loman. I was blown away. They provided a more insightful analysis of Loman than any of my “academic” students. I was so proud of them and even back then questioned the impact of splitting students into the academic and vocational streams.

So it was with fascination that I listened to the TEDx Victoria talk by Jeff Hopkins on Education in the New Century because he is calling for the same thing, some 30 years later. I loved his talk and his passion. We need educators like him to transform our educational systems. He suggested we need to shift to knowing from knowing about. I would suggest we need to shift to living from knowing about. Engaging our youth holistically in things that matter to them seems infinitely more exciting and meaningful than “teaching” English or Math.

Your blind spots are showing

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Dave and I just finished teaching our 4 day Strategic Leadership program at Royal Roads University last week and had a wonderful time with an energetic, bright and creative group of people. One of the major concepts in the course is the importance of convening diverse groups of people to plan strategy in our increasingly complex environment.

This can be a tough concept for folks who have been trained to develop strategy from an “expert” mindset. “What could someone not familiar with our business possibly contribute?” is a question often asked.

As it turns out, they contribute a lot, namely in the area of helping to surface our own blind spots and bringing random, creative ideas to the forefront. Novel strategic approaches and newfound energy is unleashed when one is open to feedback and insight.

Is this easy? Absolutely not. I think it’s the human condition to assume that we know and understand our own blind spots (ironic though that sounds!). Incorporating feedback that points out how flawed our thinking and strategies have been is a blow to our identity. And that’s what makes it so hard. Just who have we been continuing to pursue a course of action despite its ineffectiveness?

And that’s what great leaders can do – develop the humility to admit they have been off course or better yet, assume they may have been and bring a “non expert” in to provide a different perspective.

Moving beyond position

I love it when I find books that capture ideas that have been swirling around for me, but that I haven’t put into some kind of order or framework. How Successful People Lead by John Maxwell is a recent find that does just that. It is an informative read, with tons of great insight and practical tips about how leaders can continue to develop. Key insights for me from Maxwell:

  • He challenges people who only view themselves as positional leaders to move beyond that.
  • He does a nice job of blending the age old productivity/people dilemma.
  • He provides some great insight around delegation and developing your people.
  • He addresses the idea of one’s legacy as a leader.

He suggests we develop our leadership through progressing through 5 stages:

  1. Position
  2. Permission
  3. Productivity
  4. People Development
  5. Pinnacle

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