Built for the Storm

The flatscreen caught my attention. I’m not a fan of broadcast or cable TV. It bores me. Thirty minutes and I feel like my brain ate a bag of candy, and a pizza, and drank 2 liters of Coke. But this time I stopped, stood and watched an entire re-run of America’s Biggest Loser. You know the show: It captures contestants as they work valiantly to change their physical health by losing weight. A lot of weight.

At some point and upon hearing the back-story of the largest mobile man I had ever seen, I muttered, “How did that happen?” Another person overheard and said compassionately, “One bite at a time.” She had no judgement, no malice, no mockery in her voice.

Part way through his exercise routine—a 15 minute walk on a treadmill set on level 1—the contestant complained, “I can’t do this!” He was suffering and wanted to quit. His trainer shouted, “Keep going! You were made for this!” So he kept going. And kept complaining. I followed up later and found that he lost all of his target weight and has kept it off for nearly two years. One bite, one step, one decision at a time.

Yankee Flyer—Montague Dawson paintingstar.com

A dear friend just completed a year marked with deep struggle, personally and professionally; the kind of struggle that combined would crush most people I know. Yet his humor is in tact. His relationships are strong. His perspective is fresh. His creativity inspiring. After our last conversation I found myself asking, “How did he get that way? How did he become so resilient?” He became resilient one choice at a time.

Donnie Q and I talked about him today. Donnie said, “He’s built for the storm isn’t he?” That phrase intrigued me. Some people see themselves that way. They imagine themselves well suited for wind, rain, high seas and the intensity of a significant life. They have thought of themselves that way for years. Their hourly choices reflect that image.

Others I know see themselves as delicate, fragile, perpetually in search of calm seas and sandy shores, deserving of all the soft things a wealthy culture can offer. They weather storms, but barely. They complain bitterly while doing so. They see looming adversity as a forecast of some fundamental flaw in the world, in their family, in their friendships, in themselves. They see the cold blast of challenge as something to be avoided at all cost.

How do you see yourself? When you look in the mirror do you see someone built for the storm? When you listen to your inner narrator, does he or she say, “You’ve got this. You’re built for this!” or mutter something else?

Our daily choices reflect how we see ourselves and how we see life’s challenges. Our small choices—the ones other people wouldn’t even notice—all add up to make us who we are. They spring from a clear image. Do you see yourself as someone built for the storm? Or, as someone built for perpetual vacation in a calm port with sandy beaches?

Riding in the Rain and the Unexpected Consequences of Discomfort

I’m happy we live in an economy that results in rich layers of comfort. I like my furnace. I like my Redwing riding boots and Grifter gloves. I like my warm rain jacket and smooth Baker six speed transmission on my motorcycle. I like a tankless water heater, my microwave and my iPhone. I love my million-position-adjustable heated and cooled leather seats in my Range Rover. They make me comfortable.

But to be frank, the best things in life spring from the struggle at edges of life. When comfort fades and it is replaced by challenge, adventure, significance, even intense skirmish, then I’m truly alive.

Yesterday I awoke to an unseasonably cold and rainy day, even for Seattle standards. I was tired, cold, irritable. Knowing that the reported temperature of 48 would be a “real feel temperature” of 32 when in the wind on my motorcycle, I still decided to ride rather than drive. And, I picked the bike with no fairing or windshield. Simply because it’s more fun to ride.

Dawning rain proof-ish gear and winter gloves, I set out. When I arrived nearly 30 minutes later I was cold and soaked around the neck, wrists and legs. It was the best ride of the week! I felt every drop, every gust of wind, every slip of the tires and every revolution of the engine. It was an intense beginning to a wonderful day.

We face the “comfort or adventure” choice daily. Sometimes several times a day. And I’ve found that significance never follows comfort. It’s always found on the other side of intensity and struggle, regardless of the scope. And so I choose adventure over comfort every time I see the choice. Best of all, I surround myself with people who live their lives similarly.

This banner hangs in our shop (Rottweiler Motorcycle Company). It’s a daily reminder that regardless of the delightful advances achieved by a civilized society, the pursuit of comfort is a slow death. So, lean into discomfort and challenge. You will be happy you did.

I Have the Controls

One of my lifelong adventure goals is becoming a reality. I’ve started ground school and flight school to obtain my Pilot’s License. The first surprise was learning that it’s not even called a license. It’s a Certificate. How dull. A small letdown but I got past it.

I’m several hours into flight school in a Cessna 172. It was manufactured when I was in high school back in the day. It’s well maintained and has updated Garmin Avionics but it is still a lot like flying my red 1968 Mustang convertible. It’s loud, jerky, uncomfortable, underpowered and endearing in every way.

Aaron is my Certified Flight Instructor. Out of respect for his achievements, he is actually a CFII, not just a CFI. Look it up.

He’s smart, funny, engaging, one-third my age, with a degree is physics and never makes me feel as uncoordinated as I act. I understand and love physics. But experiencing the laws of flight and gravity while sitting behind the controls of a plane at 3500 feet in turbulence is a new adventure. I’m learning (very slowly) how to spot and recover from stalls, how to take off and land in a stiff crosswind and how to navigate over the vast forests of the Olympic Peninsula. It is a blast.

Early in my very first flight Aaron gave me the controls, said “You have controls” and expected me to repeat, “I have controls.” The significance of that exchange was not lost on me. I knew that I was flying the plane. I had control. Within the predictable laws of physics and the unpredictable bi-polar disorder-like tendencies of the Seattle weather systems, I have control. Sort of.

He has also repeatedly said, “Fly the plane. Make it do what you want it to do.” A tall order for a novice like myself. But, I have control. When my altitude is too low, I have control. When the wind is pushing me off course, I have control. When turbulence bounces us up and down 100 feet in two seconds, I have control. When taking off and climbing to pattern altitude, I have control. When embarrassing myself on a radio call (saying I’m in my Range Rover instead of a Cessna for example), I have control.

The idea of Control in the midst of complexity is interesting to me. I have complete control over just a few things, but those few things make all the difference. With the Cessna, I have control over pitch, power, direction, altitude, timing. But not over other airplanes, or over weather patterns or the FAA, or my stomach. Knowing what I have control over, and employing it with finesse, is the key to becoming a good pilot (so I’m told. I have yet to experience it.)

You may be tossed by turbulence or experience pressures from systems and people outside your control but remember you have control. You have control over at least three things. First, you have control over how you look at life and how you see yourself; you have control over your perspective. Second, you have control over whom you trust and rely on. Third, you have control over your behaviors at any given moment.

So, take control. Don’t blame the weather or other pilots or the plane you’ve been given. Fly the plane. Fly your life. (See how I mixed metaphors there?)

Our life is a beautiful adventure. So fly it. Sometimes you won’t have the finesse required, but you can still take control and fly. Sometimes you will cause others around you to experience a little motion-sickness. Maybe they will even gasp a little and yell at you. But you have the controls. So fly your life.

So, I am flying an old Cessna 172. Aaron is helping me learn so that I can fly my Cessna 412c. He is patient and I have a long way to to. And so far he has only raised his voice in excitement twice in our many hours together. He gasped once when I unintentionally put the airplane into a spin (yes, a spin) and screeched once when I botched a crosswind landing (no damage to the plane, just a massive adrenaline rush and a scratch in my ego).

But, I’m flying.

No Honeymoons in War

Few things in life and work really matter. Very few. Fewer than we think.

Practicing the discipline of setting the right priorities, and then cutting the number in half, is vital. It is also elusive. And incredibly difficult.

If you’re working to have a significant impact, if you are driven by a purpose that is bigger than yourself, if that mission is likely to fail, but worth the attempt, then you will be perpetually challenged by choosing between competing priorities. These choices will not be easy. They will be like choosing between going on your honeymoon or pushing through the next big battle.

“There are no honeymoons in war!” John shouted. His senior team laughed. They were doing the mental math that such exclamations elicit. And, judging by their grimaces and downward glances, coming up short. Most were thankful the impossible choice was not theirs but that of an absent team member.

How do we make such difficult choices? Most of us aren’t good at it. Many of us make the choice based on a prediction of the emotional responses from others we care about. One choice will make three people angry, the other only two. One choice will make one very important person smile and several dozen others rage.

Some of us choose based on a fuzzy image of the risks and benefits each path may create. We choose based on past experience and on the advice from others who have faced similar dilemmas.

Some of us choose based on our own comfort levels. This choice is better than that one because it’s familiar territory and we are good at it. It is comforting.

But, is there a better way to make impossible decisions?

We’ve studied people who are good at such choices. They do three things:

They return to values: They remind themselves, and others engaged in the choice, what really matters. They force the choice between good, competing values.

They return to principles: They remind themselves of the fundamentals and of the principles that undergird their work. They use the “this SO THAT that” way of communicating. They say it again. Aloud. These are our guiding principles. These are our fundamentals. They are crucial and timeless. And there aren’t many of them.

They time travel: In making difficult decisions people who are really good at it project themselves into the future and imagine the best outcome. This is the vision, the goal, the result they seek? This is the answer to “Why are we doing this?” They travel days, weeks or even years into an uncreated future and envision the end-state. They answer in great detail what success looks like and why it’s so important.

Armed with clarity about values, fresh thinking about the fundamentals, inspiration from the vision, they decide.

Then then then act. With full hearts.

The Freedom of a Disciplined Life

We often think of disciplined people and teams as freaky phenomena of nature. They are a bizarre combination of will power, seriousness, and inflexibility. We admire them but don’t want to live the way they do. Like New Zealand’s All Black rugby team, we watch, stand up in awe but stand back unchanged.

Discipline, sometimes called self-discipline, is intentional behavior focused on motivating oneself intrinsically to get—and stay—on track. It is conscious behavior, repeated over time, resulting in a desired and sustained outcome. It requires willpower to activate. Discipline is always related to the achievement of goals and connected to a value beyond the goal. I call that value a Result.

A discipline is simply a habit that requires a little push to get started . Habits only require a cue, sometimes even very subtle cues, to start. But disciplines require a conscious decision to trigger them. Then, once initiated, they follow the same pattern and routines as habits. Disciplines yield rewards. Disciplines set us free. The disciplined person is free; the Disciplined Team is a force to be reckoned with.

Disciplines require a jump start to get them going. They function like activation energy in a chemical process. They are simply a small burst of energy (willpower) that gets us moving. Then, once moving, the momentum of habits take over. Such energy is required to move molecules into a state in which they can undergo a chemical change and our lives into a state in which we are stronger and more free.

Examples of activation energy are all around us. This morning it took activation energy to get out of bed. It took activation energy to start your car’s engine or to get it moving from a stop. It takes this form of energy to start the compressor on your refrigerator or to start a fan. In most arenas it takes more energy to start moving than to keep moving. This is a great way to think of a discipline.

Disciplines are needed after goalsetting occurs and before habits engage. Set a goal, decide how to accomplish the goal, plan the first step of the goal, initiate the discipline, move, engage the habit. Do this over and over and we achieve the goal.

Let’s use a health example. Set a fitness goal to be able to have more energy and more lean muscle mass, for example. Imagine that you decide to include running daily as part of the way to achieve the goal. Decide to run daily in the morning before work. Set out your running shoes and shorts each night before you go to bed and tell someone else you will be running. When you awake to your alarm, it takes a few moments of discipline to get up, put your shoes on, stretch, warm up and begin the run. After three or four strides, your habits kick in. This is the difference between habits and disciplines.

The run doesn’t require uninterrupted explosions of willpower and discipline throughout to complete. It only requires small bursts of willpower and discipline, especially in the beginning, to achieve the benefit. The rest of the time our habit structure takes over.

In times when a little push doesn’t work to get us started, we’ve learned that one (or all) of these three tools will act like extra rocket boosters to break free from the cold grip of psychological and physical gravity.

One: Use the buddy system. We learned it in first grade. Link up with someone. Get them to do the discipline with you. Then when you are sitting in the malaise of the moment just knowing that your friend or co-worker is waiting for you is exactly the thing you need to get the party started.

Two: Plan ahead. Decide when, where and how you are going to practice the discipline a few days in advance. Then, put it on your calendar. And, tell someone else you are going to do it.

We are sophisticated herd animals and we thrive on connections with others. We thrive on certainty and a degree of predictability. Combining the buddy system and planning ahead feed both of those appetites.

Three: Plan for the celebration. Make a commitment to do something (that doesn’t undermine the discipline) upon completion of the discipline. Something small. Something pure and enjoyable. It doesn’t need to be proportionate to the time and energy exerted in the discipline. A brief, joyful pause is sufficient. Finish the run and stand in the early morning light listening to a favorite song. Finish the discipline and pause to enjoy a dark cup of coffee or play with the dog or call your grandson. It won’t take long before the ritual of the discipline + habit + pause will fuse themselves together as one.

You already have disciplines. So does your team, your organization. Some of them are written down and enforced and others are silently expected. Disciplines in a person’s life, or in an organization’s teams, reveal true values and mission. More than habitats, they show what’s really important. Disciplines point to what really matters like nothing else I’ve ever seen.

What arenas in your life could benefit from a disciplined approach? Is it your health, relationships, finances, organizational skills? Is it your perspective or attitude? Is it procrastination? Whatever the theme, pick one simple discipline you would like to institute, envolve another person, plan ahead and set up a simple reward at the end.

Do this three times. Your neuropathways in your brain will set you up to crave the discipline. And, after practicing for a short while, you will be free.

How to Break a Habit

Habits are not so much broken as replaced. The way to break a habit is to create another one in its place. And the new habit must be more rewarding and simpler to enact than the one it replaces. Simple, huh?

“What is better than ice cream?” Dan asked this one night after a beautiful meal, drinks on the town and lots of laughter. His question carried a heavy implication: nothing is better than ice cream!

Dan is a fan of ice cream. A huge fan, if you get my drift. He has tried to quit his ice cream habit by replacing the delicious evening treat with celery and carrots. And with a walk. And with a treadmill. He doesn’t like any of those things. But, one summer weekend his four-year-old granddaughter came to visit. She wanted to go outside and play. Dan didn’t have ice cream that night. Or the next when she wanted him to read eleven stories. Later he said that he didn’t even think of ice cream. He liked spending time with his granddaughter more than eating ice cream.

Joan loves to gossip. She thinks of it as keeping people in the loop on her team. She is such a good storyteller that listeners rarely realize she is merely gossiping. Whenever she gets a little bored or irritated, she springs into the “have you heard…?” habit. It makes her feel good. It makes her feel closer to her team, and it distracts her from the boredom at work.

She recently attended one of our leadership development courses and learned that gossip is destructive. We call it triangulation. It is the single most destructive behavior in the workplace. She saw herself in our illustrations and vowed to break the habit. Her versions of carrots, celery and treadmills didn’t work either. Nothing she tried was as pleasing as the habit of gossip. Until she realized that boredom was the trigger for the habit. She approached her Director and said she was bored and needed more challenging work.

Only too happy to oblige, the Director assigned Joan a very complex project that had failed twice under other project managers. She took a deep breath, said yes, and dove into the work. A month passed before she realized that her new habit of engaging and challenging work was more pleasing than the old habit of gossip. She craves the work and doesn’t even think about gossip anymore.

Break any habit by replacing it with something you like more. It will take some thought, honest self-assessment, and experimentation but you will be astonished at how practical this approach is.

I have an intense workout habit. Six mornings a week you can find me sweating like a nervous horse, breathing heavy and focused. I like the feeling after I workout much better than the feeling when I don’t. This habit would be tough to replace. It is very rewarding.

I write every day. It’s a discipline. After the first few paragraphs, the start-up energy required to activate the writing diminishes. Staying on task, focusing, trying to make sense of my mental whirlwind is a discipline. Fingers flying over the keyboard is a habit. The discipline and habit of writing work better for me than a habit of thinking and staring out the window. I like what the writing habit does for me. I like how it sharpens my thought processes, organizes my emotions and how it results in a vague sense of productivity, even knowing that most of the sentences will never see the light of day, having wilted under the heat of the editor’s cutting torch.

7 Ways to Keep a Habit Going

Even long-held and beloved habits can be replaced by newer ones. Think of the number of times you’ve said, “I should get back into that.” Or, “I used to do that all the time,” with a wistful, distant gaze, fond memories wash over you.

All habits require a little maintenance. Simpler and older the habits require less prompting while newer and more sophisticated ones need periodic support to keep them alive. Here’s what we have learned about keeping a habit going:

1.) Rearrange your self-image to match the habit. I am a runner rather than I went running. I am a steward of my time rather than I use a calendar and to-do list.

2.) Involve other people. Directly get others to practice the same habit. Indirectly ask others to check in with you about the habit.

3.) Schedule the practice of the habit days in advance. I put my daily workout schedule on my calendar every Sunday evening for the coming week to ten days. Plan what you are going to eat for dinner at a restaurant the morning before. Even go so far as to write it down.

4.) Create a small reward right after the habit. Wait for the cup of Ethiopian coffee until after you’ve exercised. Wait to watch the long-anticipated new episode of South Park until after you’ve folded laundry. Save the sushi lunch until after you’ve completed the review at work.

5.) Don’t miss two straight days of the habit. It only takes that long to establish a new habit, especially if the new habit is simpler and more pleasing than the old one.

6.) Bundle habits together. Put the wavering habit together with one that has never wavered.

7.) Create a stronger trigger. The trigger is a cue that sets your brain up to step into the routine. Once we step into the routine, we rarely stop.