Cruel Bosses: The Gods of Workplace Punishment

Overworked employee

While some folks have fulfilling jobs, many find their work to be torturous. You don’t have to look hard to find examples portraying jobs as boring and/or painful to endure. Here is a short list of movies or TV shows.

  • Office Space
  • Horrible Bosses
  • The Devil Wears Prada
  • 9-to-5
  • American Beauty
  • The Apartment
  • The Office

Even if you don’t currently relate to these examples, there’s a good chance you have been in a toxic work environment. At the very least, someone you know is struggling with a negative job experience. You as a leader may also have blind spots that put your people through unnecessary suffering.

This view of work and bosses is nothing new. Long before any of the shows above were created, Charles Dickens literally gave us a Scrooge as an example of a hard-nosed business leader apathetic to the plight of his employee Bob Crachit. If we look even further back in literature, Greek mythology gives us many examples of individuals being oppressed by their authorities. Even though these are punishments doled out by the gods, they are expressions of the human condition common in ancient times as it is today. Let’s take a look at four stories and see what modern leaders can learn from ancient Greeks.

Tantalus: Dangling Carrots

Ever wonder where we got the word “tantalize?” It comes from the punishment given to Tantalus. He was condemned to stand eternally in a pool of water under a fruit tree. That doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Well, when Tantalus got thirsty, he would bend down to drink from the pool at his feet. The water would recede, not allowing him to drink from it. Then, when Tantalus became hungry, he would reach for the fruit over his head. As you can guess, the branches moved up so he could not grab the fruit. Tantalus was eternally hungry and thirsty while being tantalized by water and fruit barely out of his reach.

Leadership Lessons from Tantalus

Some leaders offer future promotions or benefits that never materialize. When employees ask for specifics (dates, milestones, etc.), these offers recede like the water at Tantalus’ feet. That next pay raise is the fruit of their labors, but it moves out of reach when they attempt to grab hold of it. Leaders who don’t keep promises, or keep them vague to avoid accountability, soon lose the respect of their workers. Instead, any incentives promised to employees should be detailed in writing with specific criteria, like milestones that must be achieved or dates when the incentives will be enacted. Don’t back out or future incentives will have no credibility and will be unlikely to motivate anyone.

Sisyphus: Hard Work Without Purpose

Talk about back-breaking labor! Sisyphus was sentenced to roll a boulder up a hill all day. As he reached the top, it would roll back down and he would have to start all over. It’s reminiscent of Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, but with a giant boulder instead of a groundhog. Wonder if he had to listen to Sonny and Cher sing I’ve Got You Babe the whole time.

Leadership Moral from Sisyphus

If leaders want disillusioned and disengaged workers, then they should make work purposeless. When employees don’t understand why their work matters, then it may feel like rolling a boulder up a hill, just to watch it roll back down. Day after day after day. That could be enough to make you want to punch Ned Ryerson in the face.

Dan Ariely has a great TED Talk on the important role purpose plays in our work.

The good news is that if we added all of those components and thought about them — how do we create our own meaning, pride, motivation, and how do we do it in our workplace, and for the employees — I think we could get people to be both more productive and happier.
~Dan Ariely

Employees need to see a purpose to their work. Some workers only see the small part they do themselves, but leaders can show how each person’s contributions fit into the final product. They should see how what they do impacts the customer. Employees seeing this in person is great, but a video may do the job. This is a reason customer testimonials aren’t just good for marketing, they are good for influencing your internal culture as well.

Prometheus: No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

The gods of Olympia were withholding fire from mortals. The Titan Prometheus stole fire and brought it to man. This angered the gods, so they punished Prometheus by chaining him to a rock and having his liver eaten by an eagle. His liver would grow back each day, so the process could repeat (and perhaps so the eagle could avoid anemia).

Leadership Moral from Prometheus

Ever wonder why people don’t step up to do the right thing? In some workplace cultures, it may be because of a history of good deeds being punished. Shortsighted leaders see someone who goes beyond the call of duty as overreaching. And they feel it is their job to put that person back in their place. They may figuratively tie the employee down with new rules or threats. They also could rip the guts out of that employee by chastising them harshly in front of their peers, making an example of them and leaving workers feeling unsupported.

This calls for a certain amount of emotional intelligence from leaders. Instead of feeling threatened by what feels like an upstart employee, leaders should view this as an opportunity to coach a high potential. Encouraging the leadership skills of employees is part of what sets apart great leaders from competent managers. Jim Collins identifies this kind of humility as an essential characteristic of what he calls a Level 5 Leader.

(Note: I originally wrote that Prometheus brought light to mortals. Melissa pointed out it was fire, not light. Fire is an even better metaphor as it not only helps us see, but it warms us as well. Let’s not punish those who bring insight and comfort to others.)

Atlas: Taking on the Weight of the World

Atlas didn’t fair much better than his brother Prometheus. The Titan fought a battle against the gods of Olympus. As punishment, Atlas had to hold the sky on his shoulders for eternity (the common misperception is he had to hold the Earth).

Leadership Moral from Atlas

How do some bosses reward hard work by capable employees? By giving them more work. They eventually burn out productive workers by piling additional work onto them. To make things worse, when mistakes are made or work isn’t accomplished, they attack the employee’s competency even though the workload is unrealistic. Exceptional employees can be given more work, but it should be incremental. Also, at some point, they should be able to delegate some of the more basic tasks as they take on additional and more complex work.

In general, leaders can’t view themselves as gods of the workplace. We’re all mere mortals, doing the best we can. Maybe these ancient stories can shed some light on cruel consequences that shouldn’t be inflicted on us or our people. The good thing is today’s punishments aren’t eternal. We can make changes starting now.

Bonus: Play Ancient Greek Punishment, a Flash game, to add a fun, interactive element.

 

The Imposter Crisis is Coming, Are You Ready?

Woman takes off mask, feeling like an imposter

All the signs are pointing toward an impending imposter crisis. In light of today’s political climate and the social media activity of celebrities, you might think you know what I’m getting at. But I’m talking about a different imposter crisis. Let me start with a personal story.

Years ago, a friend of mine organized murder mystery dinner theatre for birthdays and other events. I helped with a few, including a party celebrating a newly appointed bank president. I was supposed to assume the role of his brother. This was a bit of a challenge since I didn’t know the bank president personally and the only background I had was his résumé biography.

After performing a scene, I was confronted by a couple of bank employees who started quizzing me on details about where my “brother” and I had grown up. It was all in good fun, but I became defensive when I couldn’t keep up the act. Not wanting my cover to be blown, I desperately clung to my story and my behavior made it obvious I was agitated by their accusations. I felt embarrassed and was uncertain of what to do at this point. I finished the evening, but it was difficult to stay in character or enjoy the event at all.

Even if you’ve never performed as an actor, you probably relate to this situation. Every day, we are asked to take on a variety of roles. You may be…

  • a spouse
  • a parent
  • a child
  • a friend
  • a coworker
  • a report
  • a leader
  • a driver
  • a shopper
  • a producer
  • a consumer
  • a counselor
  • a person in need

You could be all of these in the span of a single day. Some of these roles may be natural for you. Others may feel like a stretch. Roles related to your job can continuously slide up and down your spectrum of confidence.

Many times, you may feel like I did in the murder mystery dinner.  A feeling you’re pretending to be someone you’re not with a constant expectation someone will rat you out to the world. This feeling doesn’t mean you’re unprofessional or inadequate. It means you’re human.

In fact, this is so common, there is a term for it: Imposter Syndrome. This form of self-doubt doesn’t appear to be exclusive to a particular gender, race or personality type. We feel like a fraud often when we are trying to do something that’s new to us. Here’s the thing: doing something new is no longer an option, it’s a requirement. The pace of change is ever increasing. With those changes, we are each asked more and more often to learn something new–or even transform ourselves. The graph below is adapted from Geoffrey Moore’s book Dealing with Darwin:

Life Cycle Change Curve

The chart illustrates how businesses, products and technology have to innovate and change in order to move forward or improve performance. But, what if instead of viewing this from the lens of a business or product, you view it as your career? For most of us, this is the new reality and it comes with the additional requirement of learning new things on a regular basis.

What does this mean? It means it’s possible you could continually feel like an imposter. By the time you get through one learning curve, a new one begins. The persistence of this issue could manifest itself in some very real problems for individuals and workplaces.1

  1. To keep up appearances, you work harder (but not necessarily smarter), which leads to burnout.
  2. Self-doubt causes you to give answers you feel your supervisors want.
  3. You use charm to compensate for feeling inadequate. When praised, you feel you received acknowledgment because of charm instead of merit.
  4. You avoid displays of confidence in yourself.

What Can You Do to Avoid the Imposter Crisis?

All of these issues can be devastating to your productivity, innovation, creativity and your ability to collaborate effectively with others. Left unchecked, this can seriously impede your career and prevent you from achieving your goals in life. So, what can you do about it? Here are a few suggestions.

  1. Acknowledge the Feelings

    Recognizing when you’re feeling self-doubt can give you more power over those feelings. Lack of awareness allows self-doubt to manipulate your actions (or inaction) without your knowledge. It’s like a sneaky, little gremlin sabotaging your life from the shadows. Shed some light on him and you take away his power.

    Also realize you’re not alone in feeling this way. Others, even those you may feel are judging you, struggle with the same doubts and uncertainty. They likely think much more about their own inadequacies than yours. A former first lady put it best.

    You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.
    Eleanor Roosevelt

  2. Get Perspective

    In his Inc.com article on How to Overcome Your Fear of Being a Fraud, Chris Desi encourages you to seek a mentor. This should be someone who can empathize with your feelings, share how they deal with self-doubt and encourage you to overcome your fear. Desi also recommends reviewing your past accomplishments. If you received public awards, you can even ask yourself if the judges would have acknowledged you if you didn’t deserve it.

    If you’re still wondering if you’re over your head, take a moment to check your comfort level. In his advice on setting goals, Michael Hyatt gives a great description of 3 different zones of comfort on the “This is Your Life” Podcast. If you feel like you’re in your Comfort Zone, then maybe your goals aren’t not pushing you enough. You should strive to be in the Discomfort Zone. This the place where growth happens because–as we mentioned above–you’re learning something new. But don’t deceive yourself into trying something impossible and ending up in the Delusion Zone.

  3. Be Courageous

While in basic training, Dan Sullivan learned the difference between fear, courage and confidence from an Army Sergeant.

He said, “Fear is wetting your pants. And courage is doing what you’re supposed to do with wet pants.”

Sullivan goes on to explain…

Courage is often depicted as a person feeling absolutely certain about taking action in a situation. That’s not courage — that’s confidence. The difference between courage and confidence is that confidence feels good; courage is doing what you’re supposed to do despite the discomfort and the lack of confidence.

OK, so you’re not running military drills with live hand grenades, but the fear of being seen as an imposter is just as real. It taps into the primitive part of your brain that avoids danger (sensed or real) in order to survive. This is when you need to realize, as Elizabeth Gilbert puts it, fear doesn’t have your permission to drive the car. You can’t avoid him, but you can put him in the back seat.

Like I mentioned earlier, when I the bank employees confronted me about being an imposter I let it ruin my day. Don’t let imposter syndrome ruin your day, or worse, your career. With the oncoming imposter crisis, be aware when it creeps in on you, keep your perspective and stock up on courage to do what you’re supposed to (even with wet pants).

 


 

How to Balance Creativity and Productivity

Creating something seems synonymous to producing something. Yet, the terms creativity and productivity can be very different concepts. If I describe someone as “creative” you probably imagine an artist or a person who generates clever ideas. When I mention a “productive” person, you likely think of someone very different. Perhaps an assembly line worker cranking out widgets, or a paper pusher who can empty their inbox at lightning speed.

The truth is you need to be both of these people. You need to be productive so you can meet deadlines and help your business be profitable. Meanwhile, you also need to be creative in order to generate new ideas, come up with better ways to do your work or find innovative solutions when things don’t go as planned. In the middle of the daily grind, you probably don’t think much about bringing the proper mix of creativity and productivity to your work.

But what is the proper mix of creativity and productivity? Here are 3 signs they are out of balance and how to balance your creativity and productivity.

Creativity-and-Productivity

  1. Too Much Play: Resistance pushes you to the next idea.

    An idea energizes and motivates you. You organize and rally behind it until you start to feel resistance. Energy wains as you realize the challenges of executing your idea. Eventually, you are lured away by another (newer, shinier) idea and the cycle starts over. Constantly chasing new ideas never allows the previous ones to mature.

    In her book Multipliers, Liz Wiseman describes this syndrome:

    Idea Guys are fountains of creativity, and their minds race with non-stop ideas. They may think they’re sparking innovation, but they cause whiplash as people scurry to keep up with each new idea, making minor progress in many directions.

    Signs you are too heavily in the “play” quadrant:

    • You never document processes for your activities because they change so often.
    • You are stretched in many directions, but don’t seem to complete many tasks.
    • You spend a heavy amount of time planning and brainstorming, but lose interest when it’s time to execute.

    How to restore balance:

    • Put new ideas in a “parking lot.” Write them on a dry erase board or add them to a list on your computer. Revisit them after the initial euphoria has worn off to see if they still have merit.
    • Start with the end in mind. Use the initial energy at the beginning of a project to set up milestones. Envision what success will look like and predict how completing the effort will make new opportunities available. This will help you push through the valleys of the project.
    • Use new ideas as motivators to finish your current work. There is an opportunity cost to saying “yes” to new ideas because they can take away from what you’re currently working on. Don’t allow yourself to start working on a new idea until you complete something comparable.
  2. Too Much Routine: Each day looks like the one before.

    You’re so busy executing, you don’t have time to question why you’re doing what you’re doing, let alone if there could be a better way to do it. Established ideas are not challenged and new ideas are not offered up. Because of this, each day seems like you just go through the motions. You stack ’em up, knock ’em down, then stack ’em up again.

    Signs you are too heavily in the “Routine” quadrant:

    • “That’s the way we’ve always done it.” is a common refrain. New team members or business partners are the only ones who offer ideas, and even that is temporary.
    • You’re losing market share to competitors who are more innovative. You keep old-fashioned customers only because of their sense of comfort and loyalty (until it gets too painful for even them).
    • Roles never seem to change. If you have a team, there’s no sign of advancement opportunities.

    How to restore balance:

    • Have more patience with alternatives offered by others. Allow ideas to incubate before shooting them down. (See 10 Signs You’re Shooting Down Good Ideas)
    • Be willing to test new ideas. If you’re scared to put a huge investment into a new product or service, see what you can do to float a trial balloon. Can you create a prototype or beta test with a select group?
    • Shake up routines. Ask team members if they want to do something different or try on a new role. Visit a museum or attend a conference. Visit the bookstore and select a few magazines from other industries, then identify trends and see if you can apply some of them to your business.
  3. Welcome to the morgue: Stagnation

    This is the most dangerous quadrant. You’re not creative and you’re not productive. You’ve practically flatlined. This can happen because of burnout or setbacks, but basically what you’ve been doing no longer works and you’ve now lost all motivation to try anything new.

    Signs you’re in stagnation.

    • It smells like entropy. Without any energy being injected into your business, things have trended toward chaos. Things aren’t well organized nor are they updated. Maintenance is slipping, perhaps non-existent, and appearances have not been kept up. (see The Smell of Entropy for an example)
    • It sounds like apathy. Common phrases are “Who cares?”, “It’s not worth the effort.” or “Nothing’s going to change anyway.”
    • It feels like death. You’ve gone through the stages 1) Denial and Isolation, 2) Anger, 3) Bargaining, 4) Depression and 5) Acceptance. Now all that’s left is to wait for the bank to put the last nail in the coffin.

    How to restore balance:

    In his book, Boundaries for Leaders, Dr. Henry Cloud talks about how to reverse the death spiral of a leader. His points give a good framework for escaping stagnation

    • Create connections. Schedule times to bring your team together and let everyone discuss the current situation and even share some potential solutions. Emphasize a positive tone, but encourage honesty. Share in victories and difficulties.
    • Regain control. Dr. Cloud recommends making a list of things you can’t control that are making business difficult. Spend 5-10 minutes REALLY worrying about them (don’t be in denial). Then stop worrying about them. Make another list of what you can control which can create positive results. Prioritize this list and plan these activities as your primary focus.
    • Take note of the 3 P’s. Realize it’s not Personal (you are not a failure). It’s not Pervasive (not everything is going wrong). It’s not Permanent (don’t lose hope). Dr. Cloud recommends journaling the negative thoughts around the 3 P’s and writing counterarguments to each.
    • Add structure and accountability. Break your workday down into small increments (e.g. 30 minutes each), and specifically plan what to do in that time. “[Writing down objectives] for each thirty minutes of the day helps identify and isolate activities that are particularly endangered due to inaction.”
    • Take the Right Kind of Action with the Right Kind of Accountability. Take action that SPECIFICALLY drives results. Dr. Cloud further states, “The accountability you want is the kind that drives success, not the kind that only measures results and keeps score.” and “Said another way, don’t count the score. Count the behaviors that run up the score.”

At the beginning of this article, I mentioned how creativity and productivity differ. By taking stock of where you are in the grid above, then restoring the balance of creativity and productivity in your business and/or team, you’ll likely discover these two words come together to create a state of flow. This is where creativity and productivity work together, building upon each other in a powerful way. When you’re in a state of flow, ideas help drive activities to completion while measurable progress promotes innovation and inspiration.

StateOfFlow

We need both creativity and productivity to accomplish meaningful work on a consistent basis. Finding this balance may be the difference in discovering your success.

If you have thoughts on creativity and productivity, feel free to leave a comment below or tweet me about it.

How Attractions Help You Avoid Distraction

marquee-main-attractionThere’s a big reason we have so many issues trying to accomplish important work. We aren’t clear about what is the main attraction and what are simply distractions.

When you think about your daily activities, how many of them could be classified as a distraction?

  • Binge-watching House of Cards
  • Scrolling through a dozen screens of Facebook updates (and associated ads)
  • Reading gossip about celebrities
  • Spreading gossip about celebrities
  • Checking email unnecessarily

– Ironically, I got derailed from writing this blog post because checking my email seemed critical (it wasn’t).

But there are even bigger things than this. Your job could be distracting you from the attraction of a fulfilling and impacting career. That fad diet could be distracting you from a more meaningful, healthy lifestyle. Treating those migraine headaches may be distracting you from dealing with the stress you’re under and finding a sense of peace.

What can you do to overcome distraction?

Define Your Main Attractions

If you don’t focus on what is important to you, then distractions will continuously lead you around by the nose.  Take some time (yes, you can carve out an hour this week) to quiet your mind and ask yourself what is truly important to you. Write these down on a sheet of paper. It could things like your family, but try to build toward things that are specific to you and less generic (e.g. having a close-knit relationship with my kids, helping people overcome poverty or being active and fit).

Organize Yourself around Your Main Attractions

Knowing the big picture of what you want is helpful, but you need to understand how to apply it to your daily life. Use your calendar, a task managing app or even simple lists on a sheet of paper to make sure you’re taking care of what is important to you. Start by looking at the inventory of your personal main attractions and write down activities that help you stay focused on your goals and values. Revisit this at the end of the day. Evaluate what you did well and where you can improve. Now you can make a new list for the next day.

(Better yet, create “Success Lists” instead of “To Do Lists”, from Gary Keller’s book The ONE Thing. Brian Johnson explains the book succinctly in this video.)

Systemize Good Habits

In her latest book Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, Gretchen Rubin disagrees with trying to make healthy choices each day. She encourages us to make ONE healthy choice and then make it systematic… a habit. Here’s a section from her interview on BigThink.com:

…the advantage of a habit is that once something’s on automatic pilot, then the brain doesn’t have to use any energy or willpower to make a decision. You’ve already made that decision. You’re just moving forward. And so it happens easily without any thought, without any willpower, without any effort. You’re just on cruise control and then you can do what you want to get done.

If you’re having to make deliberate choices to focus on your main attractions, you may reach a point of decision fatigue and then the distractions win again. If I plan to go to the gym, I set out my clothes and get my water bottle ready the night before. It has become a habit. Once I’ve done that, I rarely miss my exercise routine.

The world will always be full of distractions and the little gremlins will try to knock you off course. But, if you identify your main attractions and then organize and systemize your life around them, you have a better shot at accomplishing what is important in your life. What could be greater than that?

My life is my message.

-Gandhi

How Do You Decide When to Quit?

Knowing when to quit and when to press on can be one of life’s toughest decisions. When things get tough, the tough get going… but do they go straight ahead or in a different direction? When I wanted to quit football in high school, my father taught me a lesson I have never forgotten.

high-school-footballIn preparation for the big homecoming game my sophomore year, our rural Oklahoma football team had ordered new uniforms so we would look our best during the halftime ceremony. Just one problem – there weren’t enough new uniforms for everyone. Junior and senior class players got first selections. Then as one of the coaches was giving sophomores their uniforms, he skipped me (and a couple of other “average” athletes) and gave the remaining uniforms to some of the talented freshmen players.

I was humiliated.

I wasn’t being a fashionista. This was a message to me that the coaches didn’t consider me a valuable contributor, and this message would be on public display to everyone else. The uniforms were so distinct the rest of the team would notice, as would everyone in the stands while we stood in the middle of the field during the homecoming ceremony. I couldn’t imagine being one of the few varsity players wearing a marred and tattered, older-style uniform. I walked up to the coach and said, “I quit.” and walked out of the field house.

Shortly after the game had started, my father wondered why I wasn’t on the field and he came and found me. I explained my reasons for quitting the team. He understood my frustration, but reminded me I had made a commitment to the coaches and my team. He encouraged me to finish out the season before deciding whether to quit, but left the decision up to me.

I knew he was right. After the game, I swallowed my pride and asked the coach if I could return to the team. I finished the season, but never played football after that year. Since I didn’t continue pursuing football, it may seem like rejoining the team was meaningless. But I learned some valuable lessons from my father’s advice.

All of us have been in a place like this – where we don’t feel like a valued contributor, where we don’t sense we are in our element or where we don’t feel fulfilled. Maybe that is where you are today. You have no desire to stay where you are, but quitting can be a scary proposition.

So, how do you decide when to quit? Here are a few tips.

  1. Assess your commitments.

    Did you commit to a timeframe or to specific deliverables? Consider how failing to meet those commitments could impact your employer, your client and/or your reputation. If staying committed is best for everyone involved, push to that finish line. I felt I had committed to completing the football season when I joined the team, so I pushed on. In another example, Heather Dorniden pushed herself to the literal finish line after falling during a 600 meter race. Here are the two inspiring videos: the first video and the second (hat tip to Michael Hyatt‘s great post “Don’t Quit Before the Whistle Blows).

    If I miss a goal, which sometimes happens when you set huge ones, I want the reassurance that I did everything I in my power to make it happen. I want the peace in knowing that it wasn’t for lack of hustling that I missed a target for my dream. I want to know that the one thing under my control was under control.
    Jon Acuff, Quitter: Closing the Gap Between Your Day Job and Your Dream Job

  2. Assess the opportunity to grow.

    That event at homecoming helped me recognize I was only playing football because I thought I was supposed to. Honestly, I didn’t enjoy it and likely would never have been more than a mediocre player. The time I would have spent continuing to play football was instead funneled into creative activities I enjoyed and excelled in, as well as a part-time job.

    Consider whether quitting now improves or limits your capacity to grow. What are the opportunity costs for sticking with it compared to trying something else? Do you have other options you know you can pursue and be excellent in doing?

    Mediocre work is rarely because of a lack of talent and often because of the cul-de-sac. All coping does is waste your time and misdirect your energy. If the best you can do is cope, you’re better off quitting.
    Seth Godin, The Dip

  3. Set a tripwire on your decision.

    There are very few times when you commit to something for life, so most everything we commit to has to end eventually… but when? My father suggested I wait and decide whether to quit after the football season was over. This gave me a specific time to consider my decision. If now isn’t the right time for you to decide, set a tripwire. Do you need to make your decision after fulfilling your commitments, like I did? Maybe you need to prepare yourself for the transition. Practicality may require you to line up another option first. But don’t let these issues cause you to procrastinate. Estimate how long this should take and set a date for your decision. This will give you a specific goal to aim for and will help motivate you to make progress toward that goal.

Quitting isn’t easy, but languishing in mediocrity is no picnic either. By considering your options and making a plan, you can improve your opportunities for success. Finally, don’t feel like quitting makes you a loser. To quote Seth again from The Dip…

Winners quit all the time. They just quit the right stuff at the right time.
Seth Godin, The Dip

I hope these tips help you do exactly that. Quit the right stuff at the right time.

How Emotional Posture Stunts Growth

vulnerability is not weakness

original image by samplediz at FreeImages.com (http://www.freeimages.com/photo/1224442)

“I’ll never let that happen again.”

Amidst all of life’s slings and arrows, we learn to put up our shields to protect ourselves. We do this to get through situations when we feel attacked, but if we leave our shields up we close ourselves off. We galvanize ourselves in a way that prevents us from learning, changing and growing.

We trust someone and they hurt us, so we no longer trust as easily.
We try something new and it backfires, so we go back to our comfort zone.
We share our art with others and get negative feedback, so we keep it to ourselves next time.

Our brains naturally try and avoid pain in order to protect our existence. Self-preservation is essential in life or death scenarios. But we’re people, not jam. We don’t need to be preserved indefinitely. In order to experience what it means to be human, we have to take emotional and mental risks, even when it means inevitably experiencing pain.

If we let it, our emotional posture will stunt our growth.

Vulnerability is not weakness. And that myth is profoundly dangerous. Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.

– Dr. Brené Brown

Brené Brown’s definition of vulnerability is not one of weakness, but of strength (here are some videos of her explaining this). I find it helpful to think about vulnerability as a posture. If you are too protective, you could be closed off to the world around you.

If you are in a closed posture, you…

  • … keep your head down
  • … watch closely where you walk
  • … hold your arms in to protect your heart
  • … are sure to not make contact with anyone or anything
  • … ultimately make yourself smaller

If you are in an open posture, you…

  • … hold your head high
  • … see farther and can notice more opportunities
  • … are more free to use your arms and hands in helping others
  • … are able to connect more easily with others and build rewarding relationships
  • … are able to grow

It can be scary to walk through each day with an open posture (especially after getting sucker punched). But if we decide our solution to life’s hard lessons is to “never do that again,” we may miss incredible opportunities to see something beautiful born out of our willingness to be vulnerable.

As you go through your day, check your posture and ask yourself if you’re being open or closed.

God from the Machine

JR-Ewing-Jeannie

Many of us remember when the TV show Dallas turned an entire season into “just a dream” in order to bring back a character who had been killed off. Viewers were furious with what they deemed a copout. The solution was much too convenient and it came out of the blue.

This is a prime example of what the industry calls a deus ex machina.

A deus ex machina is something inserted into a story which provides a contrived solution. In Latin, the phrase means literally “a god from the machine.” We may show frustration with Pam waking up or Tolkien’s eagles, but truth be told, we want our own god from the machine.

We want the pill that allows us to lose weight without changing our eating or exercise habits. We want that windfall of money from the lottery to solve our debt problems. We want our relationship issues to disappear as the other person realizes they were wrong all along. Basically, we want to wake up in the morning and realize all our problems are now as insignificant as a bad dream that rinses out of our lives in the morning shower.

Wishing for your own deus ex machina does little good. Your time can be better spent honing your craft, growing your following, rolling a snowball downhill and building momentum. As you do this, you learn how to make bold – but smart – decisions. This is where you can take the leap you’ve been preparing for your entire life (and the leap after that).

And maybe that’s it. Maybe it is a bit of god from the machine. Only, in this case, the machine is your life.