My life without BHAGs

A couple of years ago I was hanging out with another coach doing some goal-setting.  I’m a goal-oriented person but the ones I was listing – grow business, finish book, have a fun trip somewhere – weren’t exciting to me.

“You don’t have any BHAGs,” Jennifer said.

BHAG stands for “Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal.”  It’s a phrase created by Jim Collins in his bestseller, Good to Great, and is supposedly one of the things that separates great companies from good ones.  Great companies set BHAGs.  MBA students and other business types use this expression a lot because it applies as much to personal goals as business ones.

The idea of setting a BHAG is to push you beyond incremental, small-minded, uninspiring change.  It moves you from what you are pretty sure you can do to what you are not sure you can do, but which you WANT to do.  A BHAG can be based on great self-belief or just great desire.  Either way, when you name a BHAG you’re putting it out there, inviting the world to witness your success or failure.  You’re daring yourself to move beyond your current definition of what’s possible.

How BHAGs work

BHAGs push people (and companies) to create the kind of change that matters.

I’ve had some BHAGs before, especially in my youth when I had less going on and therefore felt more audacious.  The gap between where I was and where I wanted to be was large.  I joined speech and debate in high school, even though I grew up with a lisp and trembled when I spoke publicly. I wanted to go to the college of my choice, which I decided was Harvard, even though I knew no one who’d ever gone there and many people assured me I could not.  I wanted to learn Chinese because it was so foreign and weird and hard.  And I would say my coming-out process was a kind of BHAG – instead of feeling afraid, persecuted and closeted, I dared myself to be out, loud and proud.

The funny thing about BHAGs is that by making you push beyond yourself, they allow you to become your true self.

Which brings me to this conversation a couple of years ago, when Jennifer told me I had no BHAGs.  She was right. The personal and career goals I was writing down weren’t big, they weren’t scary, and I didn’t much care about them.  They were respectable but they weren’t exciting.

My BHAG shows itself

And then, some months later, I suddenly realized that I DID have a BHAG, one that had slipped out of conscious thinking when I had that particular conversation.  This BHAG was one that I’d been pursuing for years, sometimes quietly and sometimes publicly, without any certainty I would be successful but with a repeatedly arising desire to try.  This was a BHAG that was so important, and maybe so scary and unlikely, that it didn’t express itself as a normal goal.  It was like an undercurrent humming along, part of my body rather than something I deliberately thought about.  My big, hairy, audacious goal was:  to become a parent.

For some people, becoming a parent is pretty straightforward.  You do your business and then you have a kid.  But it’s not like this for everybody.  For some people, becoming a parent is a big friggin’ BHAG.

This was my BHAG, I went after it, and in going after it I learned a few lessons of general applicability about BHAGs.

Truths about BHAGS

A BHAG lurks around before it is fully present. I didn’t just think of this goal last year or the year before. I remember talking in law school to a friend about the merits of having a baby with a friend vs. doing it with surrogacy.  This was 1994. I had a lot of other conversations over the years.  My passion for parenthood came and went, but always came back.

A BHAG really is audacious.  Audacity is boldness with an element of cockiness.  It implies that you are doing something against the norm.  Even now, for a gay man to be a parent is not statistically common.  I would go farther and say that for a man to have the role of a nurturing, loving, guardian of children is still somewhat noteworthy.  Parenthood in America, in my view, is still firmly rooted in femaleness.  It is a kind of burden but also privilege that women have.  A woman never has to explain why she wants to have kids.  Men often do.  “But why do you want to have a kid?” is a question I heard a lot of.

A BHAG starts dividing your world into supporters and non-believers. More than 30 years ago, Marc Granovetter, then a grad student at Stanford, came up with the idea of “the strength of weak ties.”  This phrase means that people you don’t know very well can be much more important resources when you are in a period of change than people you know well. People you know well may not even support your BHAG – it might not match their idea of you or could even be threatening to them.

Telling people that I wanted to have a kid opened me up to love, support and great ideas from people I didn’t know all that well, and it also exposed me to hurtful comments, skepticism and negativity including from people I knew quite well. Not everyone will get on board with your BHAG.

A BHAG will present moments of great doubt and fear.  Going after a BHAG means you are stepping into unknown territory and you are changing yourself.  As I started taking specific steps towards parenthood, I ran smack up against deep-set fears and assumptions that had inhibited my progress for the past twenty years.  And I ran into new fears. Finding an agency, finding an IVF clinic, finding a surrogate, finding an egg donor, creating an actual pregnancy – all of these actions have exposed me to a new set of possibilities and anxieties. BHAGs can scare you!

You achieve a BHAG by slogging through, not through dramatic jumps.  I was describing the complicated and expensive process of having a baby through IVF and surrogacy to friend.  She said, “but you keep marching ahead.”  I corrected her.  “It’s more like slogging through the muck,” I said.  It might take 200 steps or two million.  The steps might feel light or heavy.  But continued slogging is how you make progress.

Your BHAG will surprise you.  You only see one side of the mountain that you want to scale. You don’t know what it will be like on the top, and you don’t know what the other side will be like.  Big surprise for me:  the first ultrasound revealed two fetuses.  We only put in one embryo.  Nature had intervened and created identical twins, which instantly put us in the category of “high-risk pregnancy.”  (Twins have twice the rate of birth defects of singletons, and identical twins have higher risks than fraternal twins.)  “It’s always the ones who are dead set on only having one kid and who just put in one embryo that this happens to,” the fertility doctor said.  “They’re always the ones that seem to end up with identical twins.”  As the saying go, men make plans and God laughs.

You will be tempted to give up.  When you have a BHAG, at some point the going will get tough, and you’ll get a sense of what you are losing without the confidence of what you’ll be gaining.  When I discovered we were having identical twins, every relationship became more complicated, as did the medical care, as did the finances.  I made many visits to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where our high-risk OB/GYN was based and each time I felt various levels of heaviness along with more positive emotions.

If it’s a real BHAG you won’t give up.  A real BHAG grabs onto you. It insists on occurring. At a certain point, your BHAG isn’t yours anymore.  It’s breathed itself into life. It’s something that accompanies you, and you don’t fully control it.  You won’t give up because you can’t give up.

The biggest lesson about BHAGS

A BHAG insists on occurring.  Just as my twin sons insisted on being born on March 5, 2015.

Your BHAG really will be worth it.  Guess what?  My twin sons are healthy, happy, gorgeous and perfect.  They were the talk of Sanford Children’s Hospital in Sioux Falls.  And why not?  They’re a miracle.  (Did I mention they’re adorable?)  I’m pretty gosh-darn happy, and also proud of myself.  I feel that I just experienced that scene change in The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy leaves the world of black-and-white and finds herself in Technicolor.

Real BHAGs arise from your deep intuition.  They don’t come from nowhere. They reflect the future you, unencumbered by your daily doubts, fears and hesitations.  They reflect a vision of what your future CAN be.

The leap across the chasm is scary . . .and you might not make it.  But you have to try, and when you get to the other side you’ll be overcome with gratitude for your daring.  You’ll bless the scared but audacious previous version of you that was willing to set things into motion.

Thought questions for you

  1. What are some of your BHAGs?
  2. Forget about what you just wrote. What’s your real BHAG?
  3. How do enroll other people in your BHAG?
  4. How do you undermine your BHAG, whether in thoughts, speech or actions?
  5. How will achieving your BHAG make your life better?
  6. How will achieving your make you better?

New dad

 All contents copyright Michael F. Melcher 2015.  All rights reserved.


New Years Exercise: Question Your Narratives

We make sense of the world through stories. They tell us what to filter in and what to filter out.  If we didn't use stories, we wouldn't have enough brain capacity to deal with living.  
The problem is that these narratives are inherently limiting, all the more so when we are unaware of how powerful they are, or don't consider that  alternatives might exist to describe the same situation.  If you say, "I have a weird marriage" or "I'm not successful because I never have anything to contribute to the alumni magazine" or "I have to be alert to every potential issue my kids face or something terrible will happen and it will be my fault" you are dedicating yourself to a particular narrative.  But do these narratives really serve you? And are they correct?
This assignment is to list out and question your narratives, and then consider alternative narratives.
Step 1. 
Verbalize the narratives that are going on in your head — as many as you can surface.  Some prompts are:
  • "I have to . . . because . . . "
  • "Right now I can't . . . because . . ."
  • "I'm supposed to . . . because . . . "
  • "I can't do anything about X right now . . .  because . . . "
  • "I need to get my act together right away about X because . . ."
  • "Even though I used to really great at . . . I shouldn't think about doing it now because . . . "
  • "Even though I have a new skill in . . .  it can't use it to build my career because . . . "
  • "Because I currently have an acknowledged insecurity about . . . I can't . . . ."
Write these out even if you think they are flawed or extreme — but they should ring true in some part of your head.
Step 2.
Analyze potential flaws in these narratives, and then offer an alternative narrative for each one:
"I could easily make an alternative narrative that . . ."
The new narratives don't have to be provable – they are alternatives to consider. 
Here's an example from my own list of ten narratives, which I composed last night. (Background: I'm going to become a father this spring after many, many, many years of contemplation and a very long and involved process.)
I'm supposed to be joyous and happy all the time during this period, and I’m supposed to tamp down fears, doubts or insecurities.
> I could easily make an alternative narrative that every expecting parent goes through an enormous amount of stress in trying to have kids, and no one is expecting me to be some kind of miracle person.
Guess what? I prefer the alternative narrative and it also makes me more grounded and probably effective.
Got it?  So check out this exercise and let me know what you discover. 


Gretchen Rubin on “The Creative Lawyer”

“There is no book on the shelves to compare with The Creative Lawyer. Funny, well-researched, and provocative, it’s an invaluable guide to under- standing yourself better—not just as a lawyer, but as a person. It’s full of useful exercises, relevant case histories, and powerful insights, delivered in unlawyer-like concise and entertaining prose. The Creative Lawyer should be required reading for anyone who has taken the bar exam—or, for that matter, anyone who is considering taking the LSAT.”

Gretchen Rubin, author, The Happiness Project 

Lawyer-coaches at the head of the pack (or, why trained coaches who are also trained lawyers are good at what they do)

From the time I started coaching more than a decade ago, I periodically ran into coaches who had practiced law. Now I meet lawyer-coaches all the time. We are everywhere! There are telephone discussion groups that consist of coaches who are also lawyers, and even within the circles of the relatively small Swarthmore-like coaching program where I did my training in 2002, the Hudson Institute of Santa Barbara, there are enough of us lawyer-coaches that we have our own mini-reunions during the big annual conference.

Coaching is an unregulated domain so you meet all kinds of people. There is a full range:  super new-age on the one extreme and super-corporate uptight on the other. There are coaches who love all coaches, and coaches who can’t stand most of the people in the field. Skill levels vary dramatically. But things are more consistent in the micro-world of lawyer-coaches, some of whom work primarily with lawyers and law firms, and some of whom work broadly with all kinds of people and organizations. I’d say that the percentage of lawyer-coaches who fall into the category of “credible, professional and helpful” is very high – at least in the 90-95% range. This is partly because the two disciplines mesh in interesting ways.

Let’s start with the lawyer side. Coaches who have been trained as lawyers have good critical thinking skills. They understand logic, they assess facts, and they have done business and lived in the real world.  They might be inspired by new, fun theories but they usually don't run off the cliff with them. They have reliable judgment. 

Coaches who have been lawyers also have good professional skills. They show up on time, write documents without typos, and know how to dress for the occasion. They don’t spaz out or flake out.  They already know that when you’re with a client, it’s about the client, not you. A surprisingly large number of people in the professional world lack these skills.

Law and coaching both focus on language. Precision in language is part of practicing law, and pushing for precision in language is a pretty large part of coaching. Coaching is basically a guided conversation that helps you think more broadly and deeply about particular issues so that you can take action. Coaches listen to hear if what you said is really what you mean. 

There are also reasons on the coaching side. Lawyers who end up getting coaching training and becoming coaches typically have far higher than average levels of emotional intelligence, and the training and discipline of the coaching method further enhance this. They understand and practice empathy, can put themselves in someone else’s shoes, know how build relationships and trust, and can be both transparent about themselves and curious about others. And while they understand logic, they don’t let it steamroll over every other way of understanding reality.

In addition, lawyer-coaches have pretty much dealt with many of their fears. You have to be reasonably brave to move from an established, validated field with a known revenue model into one that is less known and less validated, with a much more iffy revenue model.   

So if you combine critical thinking skills, professionalism and emotional intelligence, you get a pretty high-powered set of skills, and a good ally in figuring out whatever you are trying to figure out. Lawyer-coaches help to raise the professional and intellectual standards of the coaching world, and help to enhance the humanity and honesty of the legal world. I have to say that we're pretty great.

Vendor etiquette during the holidays

I have certain beliefs about what is appropriate behavior in different situations. For instance, if you invite someone to your home, you should feed them. If you invite someone out for coffee or a meal and have any kind of professional agenda, you should pay. On the other hand, if someone invites you out but you are richer, you should pay. You shouldn't touch your food until everyone has been served. And so forth. I think these are mostly uncontroversial but feel free to disregard these for your own rules. 

I also have certain beliefs about what is appropriate behavior as a vendor. I can tell you that as a child I never dreamed of one day becoming a "vendor," but in fact that is what I am. I provide services to companies, firms, nonprofit organizations and sometimes individuals, and they pay my company or me. I vend. Most lawyers are vendors as well. 

The holiday season is filled with events, requests, mailings and purchases.  Here are my beliefs about proper vendor etiquette during the holiday season. 

1.  You don't have to send out holiday cards. It will probably be to your advantage if you do, but I don't think anyone is expecting to hear holiday greetings from your firm. 

2.  If you do send out holiday cards, you will get about ten times the benefit it you actually sign them and, better yet, write a personal message.  Just one line will do!  Two, if you're feeling motivated. I like to feel there's some actual DNA on the card. It doesn't mean much to know that your electronic list of contacts was processed by an external party to generate a bunch of nonsigned cards. It does mean something to show that you spent a few minutes thinking about someone.

3.  You don't need to send gifts. I'm not sure what the point is. Also, you run into the tricky issue of potentially running afoul of other organizations' policies on these things. But I might be wrong. I do sort of love receiving presents so I'm a bit of a contradiction here.

4.  You should donate to at least some of your clients' causes. Every year I get a bunch of charitable appeals. Some are from charities I already give to, some are from my friends' causes, and some are from causes important to my clients. I frequently make donations to my clients' causes, provided they've actually written something on the appeal or the envelope.  (I suppose I would not donate if I found their causes reprehensible, but usually it's things like fixing cleft palates in China, or helping kids in education, or alleviating homelessness and the like. Nothing I wouldn't support.)

There are various reasons I do this.  On the altruism side, I believe that we are generally encouraged to be selfish people and to believe we don't have enough, therefore we shouldn't give to others. I want to counteract this conditioning, so I feel if I have an opportunity not to be selfish, I should take advantage of it.  

Second, I'm interested in my clients as people. If there is something they are committed to, I feel good about supporting it. 

Third, there is a money flow going on.  Whatever I am donating is likely a small fraction of what they have paid me. From a business point of view, this is a no-brainer.

Fourth, I like being a good guy. I am on a couple of boards for nonprofit organizations in New York City and I know from experience that it is hard to raise money. A very small percentage of people I solicit through mailings actually donate.  So I know it is noticed when someone does.  I like the idea that someone is saying, "Hey, Michael Melcher just gave us $200!"

Fifth, it is really good for my business.  When you make a voluntary donation to a cause important to a client, you are deepening the relationship you have with that person. They remember. They will think of you in a better light. You have a more complex and positive relationship.  Like I said, this is not the most altruistic reason but it's a true one. 

So don't throw out those holiday appeals! Write a few checks. You'll be better off, and so will the world.

Mindfulness and Smartphones

It has been said that the fundamental adult skill is deferred gratification.  Children who master this skill usually
become successful adults, and those who don’t, don’t.

You’d be hard-pressed to discern
this truth from any ad for any commercial product, since nearly everything is
marketed on the basis of promising immediate gratification.  “There’s an app for that!”TM means
“more instant gratification for you.” 

Instant gratification is, indeed,
gratifying, but only for an instant, in the same way that eating a potato chip
is gratifying.  It doesn’t last,
and there are consequences. 

In the case of smartphones,
texting, checking emails, IM’ing, and internet surfing, there are a few costs
associated with the “convenience” and occasional pleasure of doing whatever you
want whenever you want. This constant momentary checking taxes you in specific ways.

First, there are task-switching
costs.  When you switch from one
mental activity to another, there is a loss.  There is no such thing as “multitasking.”  It’s just task-switching – when you multitask, tasks take more time and have higher
error rates. Here’s the research.

Second, seeking instant gratification actually makes you less happy:  it impedes development of fulfillment and associated
feelings of satisfaction and well-being.  Fulfillment shows up when we have "flow," a term first identified by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi as an experience of total
engagement.  Flow occurs when we
are so immersed in something that we don’t notice the passage of time.  Csikszentmihalyi explained that we can find flow by “doing great things, or doing everyday things with greatness.”  The ingredients to flow are:  (1) a high challenge; (2) skills
matched to the challenge; and (3) constant feedback.  One of his findings is that people find more flow – and
therefore more fulfillment – in work, rather than in leisure.  This is because work requires us to
engage.  Instant
gratification is pretty much the opposite of engagement.  Flow comes from challenge, not ease.  

instant gratification is the opposite of mindfulness, which you might say is the one requirement for being content in life.  Mindfulness means being present – living, experiencing and
relishing the present moment, rather than being distracted by other thoughts or
feelings.  Mindfulness involves observing
how the mind acts – when it gets bored, distracted, annoyed, fearful, etc – and
is based on the idea that the mind is not you.  It’s part of you, but it’s not the whole you.  It’s the tool, not the master. Buddhism calls the urge to get out of the moment, to move to something else, whether good or bad, "The Monkey Mind."  The Monkey Mind is endlessly dissatisfied.  When you're having dinner with a friend or loved one and decide you need to check your phone, that's the Monkey Mind in action.   

and their ilk are basically The Monkey Mind in physical form.  With their constant ringing, buzzing and urges to “check me!
check me! check me!” they are a ceaseless force urging you to leave the present
moment and do something else. 
Your urge to check your smartphone feels like your real mind, but it's really your Monkey MInd.  The false message of the smartphone is:  “whatever
reality you’re experiencing now is not as good as the reality I’m promising
you.”  So in addition to your natural Monkey Mind, when you carry around and are a servant to your smartphone, you have created a second, outsourced Monkey Mind. 

Feel like slipping out of the moment and checking your device?  Gawker will just have another snarky,
celebrity story, similar to a hundred others you’ve read. Facebook will have some updates, but nothing as real as the reality you're in. That email might be good or bad, but
it’s just another email. 

Just as that additional
potato chip is not really going to make you happier.  Just fatter, and experiencing a salty aftertaste. And setting up the urge to do it again in 30 seconds.  

How to Get Writing Done

One reason people do boring things for long periods of time is that they get paid for it.  We’re trained to make consistent, dutiful efforts when we have the right incentives.

Writing doesn’t have this incentive system.  You probably won’t get paid for what you are doing.  If you do, income will be so far down the way that it has no incentive effects.  Writing also lacks the normal positive feedback loops that work or even exercise has.  No one is patting you on the back and saying, “this stuff is amazing!” or even “thanks for taking care of photocopying those binders.” 

The one obvious feedback loop available to you – reading what you have written – should be avoided at all costs!  During the writing process, you can’t tell what is good and what’s not.  Maybe the Biblical story of Lot and his wife is actually about writing:  if you look back, you’ll be frozen into a pillar of salt and never finish that book or screenplay.  Writing requires constantly looking forward, not back. 

Here are four practices I use to writing done.

Have a regular place.  Pick a place where you can regularly do writing.  It doesn’t have to be perfect or inspirational.  For me it doesn’t even have to be all that quiet.  My best writing location is a café.  Some regulars are the Starbucks in Northampton, MA, Café Kopi in Champaign, IL or Joe on the Upper West Side.  It has to be an available place, so that when you show up, writing will happen.  (Joe is sometimes too busy, so it is only my “place” during specific hours.)  Lots of people write at home, so maybe that will work for you.  Know what your place is.  Don’t do crazy experiments on new locales – stick to what works. I wrote most of The Creative Lawyer at Starbucks on Columbus and 81st. There was a whole gang of us regulars there.

Have a ritual.  Imagine driving up to a country pond, hiking down the beach to the gangway, and getting ready to dive off the wooden pier.  Then you dive.  That’s writing.  When you go to your special place, you should be able to visualize the sequence of actions that connect you to writing.  You can’t be wondering how you will start writing or have other activities you might do first (like checking email, calling friends, paying bills, or whatever else might occupy you.)  Know what the plan looks like.  The idea is to have no discretion.

My ritual is this.  I sit down at the café, get my coffee, bring up a blank document, which I name by date and save.  Then I put on my noise-cancelling headset and turn on my playlist called “New Writing Music” and cue the song “Foundations” by Kate Nash.  My ritual involves listening to the same playlist each time.  It’s pleasant and numbs me out so I focus on making words.  (According to my iTunes library, as of today I have listened to Kate sing “Foundations” 203 times.)  Make your own ritual.  Super busy people probably need to include a specific time in their ritual.  Like, “first thing when I wake up” or “20 minutes before I go home” or “after I put the kids to sleep.”  I do best when I write in the morning, though just before dinner also works.

Track your progress.  I keep an Excel spreadsheet called “Tracking towards the finish line.”  The fields are: date, location, minutes spent writing, a few words describing what I wrote, word count for day, and a comment on how I felt in this writing episode.  This last comment is a useful way of understanding your own writing process.  Reading over your post-writing assessments after a month of two gives you insights. 

After I write, I fill in the spreadsheet for the day.  Filling in my spreadsheet is the most satisfying part of the day!  It is my positive feedback loop!  Even if I’ve written very little that day, it’s still something, and it counts.  Incidentally, my rule is that when I miss a day, I have to write “missed day” in a row by itself.  I don’t let myself  just jump from, say, August 10 to September 20 without comment.

Ignore your feelings!  You will note that my description of filling in my spreadsheet is the only place where I include the word “feeling.”  Writing isn’t about listening to your feelings.  It’s about writing despite your feelings.  Positive feelings don’t motivate you to write.  Doing the writing is what creates positive feelings. 

The best articulation of my career philosophy that I’ve read

Check out this article, by a computer science professor at Georgetown named Cal Newport, which is about how the idea of "passion" does and doesn't fit into career choice and exploration.  In essence, he says that passion should follow rather than lead a career.  

Follow a Career Passion?  Let it Follow You

My take on this: People think that the order of satisfaction is (1) cause (2) people and (3) function, but it's really (1) function, (2) people and (3) cause. If you are working for a cause, but don't actually like what you do each day, you are going to end up bitter and unfulfilled. Whereas if you actually like doing the activities that comprise your work — whatever they are — you are more likely to be happy and contribute something useful to the world.

I didn't really know this when I was younger and making certain key decisions.  But it's true.  Luckily, I have learned from experience and now apply this thinking to my choices.

Job Wisdom

Here are two principles that will make you successful in the work world:

  1. Get the job done. 
  2. Be low-maintenance.

Anyone who hires or supervises someone else is acting pretty much on the basis of hope.  They are hoping that working with someone else ends up producing value.  It’s hope because when you ask someone else to do something, you are giving up your own control.  And yet you desperately want to, because there are other things you should be doing.  So the mark of a great employee is someone who gets the job done.  Somehow.  The mark of an average-ish, not very useful employee is someone who “touches” the assignment, and then gives it back to you.  This doesn’t accomplish the basic purpose of delegation and specialization, which is to get things out of your hair.  The employee, instead of becoming a useful resource, becomes someone who has to be managed.  Another big chore.

Anyone who hires or supervises someone is also probably a little strung out.  No matter how well they present themselves, they are probably at their limit for dealing with problems.  They are all stocked up.  Employees who are moody, whiny, petulant, “sensitive,” hostile, erratic, paranoid or who just have weird energy are a big thumb on the scale of the boss’s own mental-health balance. 

This is a key point for high-achievers because lots of high-achievers place great importance on their own sense of specialness.  If they don’t feel special, they feel sad, and therefore they want their families, teachers, co-workers and bosses to acknowledge their unique specialness.  This of course is just a pain in the ass for everyone concerned.  If you are special, be so in a low-maintenance way. Maybe that can be your own unique brand – special yet low-maintenance.  You will probably be an amazing employee if you can pull that off. 

Basically, those are the only two rules.  I omit the well-known ones, like not sending racist emails and not stealing stamps (office supplies are okay; stamps are a no-no).