Philosophy Tuesday

“When I give a job interview, I always ask after past mistakes. Several reasons for this. It’s genuinely informative about how they handle adversity, yes, and it shows if they can learn. But also, it shows if they can acknowledge that they’ve made mistakes.  Having no stories of mistakes (or mistake stories that immediately blame other people) are yellow flags. Not red because I get that some folks are scared to “screw up” the interview out of inexperience, but it becomes a direction to investigate.  But if It seems they can’t admit fault, I’m a fast thumbs down. Such a person, no matter how good, can never learn and will make things steadily worse for everyone around them.

Now, I should add, I love mistakes. And not just because of my VAST COLLECTION of them. A mistake can be IDENTIFIED and corrected or learned from. Clear problems are a GIFT.  This is because in most situation, the opposite of clear problems is not no problems, it’s obscured problems. If there are no mistakes in anything beyond a certain size, the only reasonable conclusion is that the problems are hidden.

And it’s hidden problems that get you. Failure may sometimes come from too many known problems, but even then you can regroup and adapt. Disaster comes out of the unknown ones.

Which is why the folks who won’t acknowledge mistakes are so toxic. Not only do they hide and ignore problems, they normalize that behavior and encourage others to do the same. And if those problems harm others? Hoo boy.

So, yes, failing to acknowledge mistakes (to say nothing of outright wrongdoing) is pretty harmful. But, and I say this with sympathy, it’s EASIER.  Admitting fault is scary as hell. It triggers all the “BEAR ATTACK!” Parts of our brain which scream at us to hide.  Worse, since so many of us have our identity tied up in our capabilities (“you’re so smart!”), acknowledging mistakes can feel like we’re denying that label and therefor ourselves and everyone who we perceive as valuing us for that thing. Faced with the choice between right action and self-protection, it’s not shocking which way people jump.

This is why this skill needs practice. It is something which genuinely gets easier as you do it more, and one of the (many) virtues of transparency is that you quickly discover this is nowhere near as scary as it seemed (though it can still be scary).  In a work context, it may feel counterproductive to draw attention to problems that might reflect on you or your team, but if that’s the PRACTICE, your team gets better because they’re FIXING those things (and that’s visible too).  In a personal context, it helps you form more genuine connections with people as you speak to things that really matter and can spend less bandwidth on pushing them off to maintain a facade.  The other alternative is to just get better at hiding problems and blaming others. I won’t pretend that’s not a path to success. There are enough toxic environments and spiky tribal groups that you can 100% find success that way. You just have to live with it.

Because, ultimately, you know what you did, even when no one else does.

Rob Donoghue

Philosophy Tuesday

Another reason to practice being present is that if you’re not, you’re going to miss shit.  Shit that you do.  Moreover, shit you say you don’t do.  That you don’t want to do.  That you’re immune to doing.  That doesn’t represent who you are.  And yet, there you are, doing just that or those things.

And wow then are you ever wide open to some rather hypocritical shit.*

If you say you are committed to learning and mindfulness and philosophy and being a great human being, and yet you don’t practice it, yet you do not want to hear about it when you’re not, yet you are not even willing to be present to when you are not being present, then you are, quite simply, lying.

 

* And I, for the record, am completely fascinated by our human capacity for hypocrisy.  And I’m not being facetious here… I am genuinely fascinated that we can oh so easily flop around and speak out of both sides without even noticing it.  And that’s the kicker; we can so easily, readily, unintentionally, and automatically do it and that we are pretty much always completely oblivious to the fact that we have even done it.

We can and will and do proclaim and defend and argue and run up the ramparts about something on the one hand and then – sometimes even almost immediately – do the same for something that is completely the opposite.  And as above, this is even for things we say and vehemently assert that we hold fundamental to our core – beliefs, morals, theories, history, stories, ‘truths’, actions – they are all immensely and readably fungible at a moment’s notice.

Last week’s post is a prime way this can happen, but so too is this very much tied into our identities as well as various other things.  They all engage our rationalizing engines such that what we – unless we develop our mindfulness and bring being present to bear – say and do shit that in the moment feels ancient and pure and rock solid yet is anything but, born of the moment and as nebulous as vapour.  And in those moments, we undermine our authenticity, our integrity, our morality, our ideals, and our humanity.

As I said, I am fascinated by this capacity of ours… and inspired for when we, through mindfulness and being present and self-cultivation, interrupt it and instead create who we want to be, and live by our authentic, central, selves.

Philosophy Tuesday

“Resentment is a fire that burns with more light than heat.”

— Shakespeare (Well, not really, but kinda)

There is much to commend in that quote.  Resentment, animosity, bitterness, rancor, anger, malice…  these can all be powerful motivators.  As in, they can really propel us to get a lot done.  Channeling them pushes us into action and make us productive.  Sometimes even very, very, productive.

The thing is though, just as there is a difference between being efficient and being effective, there is a difference between being productive and being fruitful.  Resentment may get a lot done, but the results are often crap.  It doesn’t produce outcomes or works of weight and worthiness that we can be proud of.

So, while it may give us that burning rush, it’s all just a light show, with nothing left to actually drive the engine.  It doesn’t move us forward.  Worse, we may well, unwittingly, instead lead ourselves backwards.

It can be work to find a fuel that burns warmer than that of resentment and its ilk, but it is worth it.  It may not churn out things as fast, and it may feel less viscerally intense, but that which it produces endures… solid, authentic, beautiful, and worthy of who we truly are.

 

* For an additional take on this, here’s a video by John Green

Philosophy Tuesday

Someone once shared with me the story about a woman who had long been a triathlete.  She did all the things a triathlete would do:  she trained diligently every day (often in the early morning), she traveled to and entered several races every year, she tracked her progress and adjusted things as needed, read magazines, bought all the clothes, had the sticker on her car, and on and on.  It was a big part of her life.  Being a triathlete was her thing!  She WAS a triathlete!  She told people she loved it.  And through all that she indeed did quite well at it.

One day though, doing the kind of philosophical work that unconceals our barriers and blind spots, she saw for herself what had her be so ambitious and so single-minded when it came to triathlons.  Many, many years ago, through circumstances that involved her father, she had made a decision:  “I will be a triathlete, and I will crush it.”  She also remembered that soon thereafter is when she began training, and how quickly it grew to the prominent (and priority) place it now held in her life.  How all encompassing it had become.

And, no doubt, that decision gave her drive, it gave her tenacity, and it pushed her onward when things were tough, whether in training, on the field, or in other areas of her life.  It was motivation, and, well, it motivated, always moving things forward as a powerful force in her life that helped her achieve a lot of results she liked.

But it gave her no freedom.  It wasn’t a possibility, it was a position, quickly forged into her identity with all the rigidness and protection that entailed.  She wasn’t in it for herself.  It may have originated from an initial desire, yes, but it became about her father, about those circumstances, about the world, and all about something that happened in her past.  Everything she did in that area came with a big dose of “in order to”, an ulterior (albeit hidden) motive.

And so, even though she was successful, there was little fulfillment in it all.

Years later, sitting in that workshop, the memory of that decision vivid.  But in that moment of clarity and insight, she put aside her decision.  She let it go, and in so doing, a clearing was created, inside of which a choice arose:  to swim/bike/run, or not to swim/bike/run.

She chose to be a triathlete.

Now, it may seem like there’s no switch there, or that it was the easy choice, but it was so much more than that.  Because for first time she, authentically, from a place of freedom, was choosing to be a triathlete.  In a way that was totally in line with who she wanted to be.  And inside of that choice, something amazing happened.  For the first time she began to enjoy the training, the competitions, and the whole world of being a triathlete both to a level that she never knew was possible, and in a way that she hadn’t realized before how much she hadn’t been enjoying it.  The lid had been blown off on her experience, and it was awesome.

To the outside observer, it may seem that nothing had changed.  But for her, the whole world shifted.  She was expressing herself fully through the act of the triathlon.  She gained fulfilment, passion, joy, excitement, elation.  And, as a sweet, sweet bonus, her performance rocketed to new heights almost instantly.  Unbridled, she soared, in both meanings of the word.

Mindfulness, ontological digging, and transformation are wonderful for those areas of our lives where something isn’t working or isn’t working as well as we’d like to.  But the impact they can have on those areas of life that are already going great can be even more exciting and amazing.  Not to mention definitively surprising!  After all, it was already good, how much better can it be?

Bucketloads better, it turns out.

Ready to reach for the stars?  Let’s go…

Philosophy Tuesday

There is a distinction, a difference, between being skeptical, and being cynical.

And yes, it is very easy to collapse the two.  However, while the former can definitively slide to morph into the other, they are not the same.

Being skeptical is engaging our thinking muscles as we engage with life.  Indeed, the roots of the word comes from a Greek word meaning “questioning” or “thoughtful”.  It is to enter situations with trust and empathy and listening while keeping our awareness peaked and mindfulness engaged.  We seek to learn and to see clearly.*

Cynicism is to enter into situations already believing the worst of someone or something.  Rather than being open to truth and truths, the cynic knows the truth, and it is the cold, hard, truth.  And in that world there is no engagement, and no need for thinking muscles – there’s no point.  The truth is already known.

Being skeptical is to keep an open mind (for we can be, and it is very powerful to be, skeptical of our own reasons and views**).  We can balance our levels of skepticism with our levels of connection and trust.  We can be deliberate and whole (not falling into the depths of Descartes-ism) in our choices.  Skepticism walks along the middle path.

Cynicism has already shut the door, believing the worst of people or of outcomes.  It is immediate.  In the realm of cynicism there is no possibility; only, at best, survival.

 

* It likely goes without saying being skeptical takes work insofar as maintaining a practice of mindfulness takes work.  Cynicism is very easy, quick, and can even feel safe, even as it boxes one in to narrower and narrower confines, and where one’s baseline experience of life becomes most unpleasant.

** The very underpinning of a transformation is the shift to a new view that seems unfathomable and darn right unreasonable under our old view.  It is a jump to a new you.

Philosophy Tuesday

“Management’s traditional assumption is that employees are recalcitrant and irresponsible. As a result, they design both equipment technologies and organizational technologies to ensure compliance, minimize employees’ scope of discretion, and reduce their reliance on employees’ skills. And management should then not be surprised when employees respond by apathy and antagonism — a result which in turn comforts management in their initial assumption that employees are recalcitrant and irresponsible.”

Paul Simon Adler (emphasis mine)

 

(This is such a great reminder.  When we approach people as jerks (or etc), we very much tend to get jerks back.  We are leaving them no other avenues for expression.  And then when we, surprise surprise, get jerk back we get that little rush because, by gosh we were right, and thus we totally get to justify our initial jerk interaction.

It is well worthy to be mindful of this downward spiral, not only in the field of business* but everywhere else in our lives as well: friends, family members, our children, people on our sports teams, hobby acquaintances, supermarket clerks, people at the DMV… and even beyond to those of differing groups, views, upbringings, social status, origins, life experiences… The list goes forever on.  No matter whom, it remains that when we relate to another or a group of others as a particular way, that’s what tends to come back to us.

Our listening is incredibly powerful.  When we listen to people as small, we get just that.  When we choose to listen to someone from and as an empowering place, the possibilities for great things opens wide.)

 

* The quote itself comes from a research paper looking into the NUMI plant, which was a closed GM plant that was re-opened as a so-called venture with Toyota, although really it more or less was a case of having Toyota run the joint.  Prior to shutdown, the plant had been a poor performer, with lots of employee trouble.  Upon re-opening, nearly all the employees were re-hires.   Under Toyota’s management style (which involved a very different “management vs worker” dynamic), the plant’s productivity, quality, and profit rose tremendously, employee turnover and sick days dropped, and worker satisfaction reached towards the nineties.

Philosophy Tuesday

There were many things that were amazing about my Sifu.  I learned so very much from him.  One of which he never taught me directly… he was simply an embodiment of it.

Sifu loved Kung Fu.  That may seem like an unnecessary statement – of course Sifu loved Kung Fu, you’d think.  After all, he practiced it diligently for so many years.  But this is not just some matter-of-fact thing.  Sifu loved Kung Fu for its own sake.  When Sifu practiced, he practiced because of that simple enjoyment.  There was no “in order to” behind it.

And that was the great insight, lesson, and wisdom he demonstrated.

Often times in our lives we take on something, practice something, or do something “in order to” accomplish, have, possess, or gain something else.  We don’t do it just for the pleasure, satisfaction, or pure difference it might make in the world.  We do it “in order to” get that other thing.

We train martial arts in order to feel manly or not scared.

We run marathons in order to look sexy and have something impressive to tell others.

We take a job in order to make money*, because we want money in order to feel powerful.

We buy something in order to distract us.

We like a particular band to fit in socially

We seek conflict in order to avoid loneliness.

Sometimes we undertake things because of some perceived flaw in ourselves.  Other times, we may not even be aware of the hidden purpose,**  the “in order to” remaining hidden from our view.  “I like it!” we think.  “It’s just what’s needed,” we add.  “I have no choice,” we finalize.

While these “in order to”s can be great motivators, pushing us with an intensity and persistence in our pursuit of that goal, they also rob us.  Rob us of freedom, rob us of satisfaction, rob us of joy.  Rob us of the experience of the moment.  And, most ironically (though you can probably guess), they also rob us of our performance.  They get in the very way of the thing we’re trying to get.  If anything starts to slip, we become frantic.  Small or large, any panic will stunt our game.

When we set aside our “in order to”s, new levels of growth and delight are available.  When we practice, do, or take on something for its own sake, we free ourselves to play and dance.  What we do becomes a self-expression, leaving us energized and fulfilled.

And In that space, we love it.

 

* As distinct from earning a living.

** Or we don’t want to admit it to ourselves…

 

 

Philosophy Tuesday

One of the activities the Black Rock Kwoon often hosted was a push hands* meetup organized by the Dread Pirate Lee.  It was a great time to meet fellow practitioners and to get to push against a wide variety of people from all sorts of backgrounds, lineages, and experience levels.

One year, mid-way through, I began to develop a sense of something.  Taking it on as an inquiry for the rest of the meetup, I began to formulate a principle/theory I quickly coined as the Tai Chi Push Hands Skill Differential Exponential Experience Factor (or TCPHSDEEF for short**):

If I have 1 level of skill, and you have 1 level of skill, to me it will feel like you have 1 level of skill.

If I have 1 level of skill, and you have 1.1 level of skill, to me it will feel like you have 1.25 level of skill.

If I have 1 level of skill, and you have 1.5 level of skill, to me it will feel like you have 3 level of skill.

If I have 1 level of skill, and you have 3 level of skill, to me it will feel like you are a god.

As the skill differential grows, the one with the greater skill gains the multi-whammy ability to be more relaxed, have less openings, sense the other’s movements and openings with greater clarity, and has the techniques to be able to engage those openings, AND those techniques will have greater subtlety, compounding the lesser sensitivity on the other side to respond before flump!  You’re off balance.

The upshot of it was this: when I pushed against those at higher skill levels than me, it almost always felt like I was light years behind (both physically in the movements/responses but also metaphorically), being tossed this way and that.  On the other side of the skill coin, however, it mattered little what my partner would send my way, even if I was unfamiliar with the technique.  I could remain centered and able to redirect with seeming ease.  I felt very much in control.

While the idea of the compounding nature of skill, and the abilities that it grants us, was important enough, it was the experience, the feeling, that came with that really struck me (and stuck with me).

Especially as this, as they so often do, ranges far beyond just implications for the martial arts.

No matter what skill we may aim to develop, whether it be tennis or skiing, drawing or cooking, working or playing, listening, giving, caring, or even in the realm of profound skills such as being peaceful, generous, passionate, expressed, loving… for any of those skills it means that the high level of ability is actually closer than we might think.

For one, that compounding nature works in our favour.  But more importantly, it further means that things that may seem out of reach are not really that out of reach.  We need not accuse ourselves of lacking talent, or fall into “I can never…”, or relegate ourselves to the dustbins along the margins.

It is nigh-well inevitable that we compare ourselves with others and their skill level(s), but any vast gulf that seems to scream at us that we (still) suck is illusionary and, in actuality, an overly dramatic scream.

We may see someone, interact with someone, be with someone, and come away with the feeling that they so own that skill that it must be ingrained, and I must have an equally ingrained difficulty with it.  And yet that feeling is just the Skill Differential Exponential Experience Factor (SDEEF for short…?) at play.

Thus, we can let that feeling be the feeling, and continue to play.  For that is what great push hands is, play.  You play, you teach, you learn, and ultimately grow, enjoying the moment now and enjoying the fruits and fulfillment that comes with the ever-deepening skill.

 

* Push Hands is a practice from Tai Chi to develop the basic concepts of sensitivity, following, emptying, redirecting, and effortless pushing, beginning with simple drills where one partner pushes while the other receives and empties, followed by a switch in roles, continually back and forth.

** Well, OK, not really for short…

Philosophy Tuesday

“I don’t even know them… why should I have empathy for them?”

I heard this quote during an interview on the radio the other day.

I would like to answer the question.

Beginning with that empathy, and its cousin, compassion, by its very nature is a generous act, one given freely.  It is not transactional.  ‘Knowing’ someone is secondary.

We interact with and pass by and come in contact with and inhabit the same space as countless people in any given day.  Many, and sometimes most, of them are people we don’t even know.

Empathy is what has it work (and the more empathy, the more it can and will work).  It is what has our daily lives be orderly, safe, courteous, striving forward.

It is what allows them to aid you when you are sick, or had a fire, or were hit by a disaster, or are grieving, or are just tired and frustrated at the end of a long day.

It can be the outpouring of support that gets you back on your feet.

It can just as easily be that smile and little bit of service, so you can get home and put your feet up.

Empathy allows us to build communities and build all the great things that come from working together.

Empathy is strength.

Empathy allows people to take us as seriously as we want to be taken.

It allows us to be related.  To feel connected.  To be generous, loving, laughing, giving, collaborative, and all the ways of being that we want and make us feel great.

Empathy is the pathway to discovering our spirit, in the grandest sense of the human spirit.

Empathy downright feels good.

And here’s the big thing.

You can’t ever ‘KNOW’ someone without empathy.

By your question, you clearly want to ‘know’ people.

Just as you, very much, desperately, like all of us, want to be known.

If no one grants you empathy, you will never be known.

And vice versa.

Being empathic allows that knowing to flow, and with it comes being touched, moved, and inspired.  By others and by ourselves.

Empathy begets empathy begets empathy begets empathy.

So the why I would assert that you should have empathy to those you don’t know is because you don’t know them.

 

* And, of course, this is not to say you shouldn’t be empathic to those you do ‘know’ as well!  Friends, family, coworkers, acquaintances, lovers, significant others, business relations, whomever.

** And the reason I keep putting ‘know’ in those quotes is because thinking we know someone in the same way we know arithmetic or grammar is not really empathic, for we are no longer interacting with the person in front of us, but with a story we have in our head about that person…