Chinese New Year electronic decluttering

DeclutterI know that Chinese New Year is a ways off.  But January 1 is not far away. So my thoughts are turning to summing up, potential resolutions, and in general pulling myself together, given this convenient time marker.

Our New Year often focuses on creating resolutions for improved behavior. But Chinese New Year has a different angle. Chinese people focus on cleaning things up before the New Year. Specifically, they make great efforts to pay off debts before the end of the year. Moving into a New Year with a revolving credit card balance or an open loan to Uncle Theodore, how gross!

What I like about this is the cleansing, preparing, sweeping-clean, DECLUTTERING aspect of this. Instead of preparing specific plans for different behaviors or goals, what if I focused instead on preparing the way for good things to happen?  

My personal take on this at this moment in my life is not money but instead email. Not so inspiring but I'm sure some of you will relate. Right now in my Entourage (the Mac equivalent of Outlook), I have any number of flagged emails – items about which I'm supposed to something but haven't yet managed to deal with. Undone things. Unexecuted tasks. Unfulfilled responsibilities. I'm not eager to deal with these – there's a reason I put things off. Considering going through this pile, I feel a minor sense of exhaustion, underscored by boredom and a faint feeling of dread.  And these are the things I remember!  Surely I have other to-do's that I've neglected to mark.  

Do I really want to carry these over into the next year?  No!

So I'm going to spend a good part of the next ten days plowing through this stuff and getting it off me. This means doing some of them and, crucially, making a conscious choice to blow others off. New client agreement? Time to wrap it up. Taking an online intelligence tool for a coach friend? I'm gonna take that off the list. (Sorry, Trish, maybe another time.) Etc.   

Clearing things out and being realistic about what I actually intend to do does involve some loss.  There are emails I won't respond to, links I won't click on, options I won't explore. But until I get rid of all this crap I am limited in my abilities to go after cool things in the New Year that I can't even grasp yet. There's an element of faith to decluttering. 

Stay tuned! And feel free to send me your own e-decluttering tales.

Five Coaching Perspectives on the 2012 Elections

What should we think about the results of the 2012 elections? One option is to question our automatic ways of judging the results. I question my automatic assessments because I’ve grown tired of them.  I spent enough time feeling depressed, frustrated and angry during the Bush years, during the impeachment period of the Clinton years, and during the entirety of the Reagan era that I came to realize these weren’t especially useful emotions for me.

Plus, as a coach I’ve seen how the way we frame things can either trap us or free us. When we ask different questions we get different answers. Coaching is partly about meta-cognition – thinking about how we are thinking. Is it possible that by thinking of the elections in a different way we might end up doing more useful things towards goals we find important?  

Let’s apply a few coaching questions to how we look at the midterm elections. (I write this as a liberal Democrat, but the questions operate in the same way regardless of one’s political view.)

“Who knows if it’s good or bad?” This question comes from a number of ancient fables and has been cited by authors ranging from Barbara Sher to Srikumar Rao. The idea is that when we make early assessments, whether positive or negative, we get trapped. Once we determine the storyline, we stop seeing the details that don’t support that story. If we defer the process of judgment, we might open ourselves to new opportunities. 

Is it possible that the results of the election are bad? Sure. Is it possible that the results might be good? Maybe, given that there are unintended consequences to everything. For instance, now that the Republicans control the House, they will have to propose specific legislation rather than talk in generalities. Their actions might turn off the public, or their coalition might fracture, or they might decide to compromise to get things done. We don’t know yet.

“What’s the opportunity?” Failure sometimes brings opportunity. If it’s clear that a particular path is not working, you are free to try alternate paths. President Obama faces a daunting set of power dynamics, but he and the Democrats have choices about how to address them. He can go right or left; he can keep trying for bipartisanship or give up on it completely; he can focus on new legislation or focus on holding onto what he’s already achieved. 

It’s counterintuitive that losing 60 seats might be present new opportunities, but it’s possible. President Clinton, elected in 1992, only fully stepped into his power in 1994 when Newt Gingrich took over the House and, in an intended show of force, tried to shut down the government. Two years later Clinton sailed to reelection.    

“What’s the systems view?” Executive coaches always look at the system as well as the individual because we know that even the most competent and motivated leaders cannot progress without systemic support. 

In a systems perspective, we look at other factors that contribute to results. This includes political players, including the Republican and Democratic parties, the Tea Party movement, unions, PACs and other moneyed entities that affect the political process. In a systems view we would also look at non-political factors that affect politics: the economy; changing demographics; voter allegiance by age, gender and ethnicity; educational changes (such as the increasing percentage of the population that is receiving higher education); and technology. For instance, I think that technology is exercising a significant effect on voting, primarily by making the public’s attention span even shorter. 

Thinking about these factors might determine what next steps will be most useful. Is it working on voter registration?  Teaching civics in junior high school? Or creating a cool iPhone  app to educate voters about the federal budgeting process? I don’t know. But these are questions worth exploring.

“What’s in your control?  What’s not in your control?” Politics often feels out of our control because we understandably focus on the macro level – who has been elected to which office, what people on television are saying, what pieces of legislation get passed or blocked. But ultimately our ability to act is at the micro level.

Voting is not the only way to have an impact. What kinds of things can you do at the local, state, national or international level? If you admitted that some things are in your control, what would you do next? 

“What got you here won’t get you there. So how do you need to grow?” The first line is the title of Marshall Goldsmith’s latest book.  It’s a useful summary about how life actually happens. You might be the most brilliant person in the world, but you should expect as you progress in life and work to find yourself in situations where the approach you’ve taken before is not relevant to new challenges. 

I personally believe that Barack Obama is pretty darn competent, and I like the people in his cabinet (especially Hillary). I also think that many people in Congress are pretty smart. That said, I think that they are in a new frontier and relying on old ways of doing things is not likely to work. So what needs to change?  What new skills need to be developed?  What do they – and we – need to learn? What do we need to unlearn?

Despairing, complaining and accusing don’t accomplish much. Finding a way forward starts with interrogating how we are actually thinking about things. If we don’t like the answers we get, we should find some new questions.  


Out of character

I just went to Beijing for a week.  It was super-fun and interesting.  I studied Chinese for many years and hanging out in a Chinese-speaking place has a way of integrating my past with my present.  (Funny how you can forget whole parts of yourself when they are not in daily use.)

Now I'm back and I have massive jet lag.  For reasons I don't understand, it's always more pronounced flying east than flying west. So I've been waking up a 3:45 or 4:00 am every morning.  This is beneficial for doing things like catching up on email but not so good for my overall disposition at any given moment.  To put it another way, I can be kind of crabby when I come back from long trips.  And then it's easy for crabbiness to turn into obsessive thinking about one negative thought or another and … well, you can see the whole downward spiral.

Since I am already tired by my own downward spiraling, I'm trying out a technique: acting out of character.  So as I consider what to do at any particular moment, or what plans to make, I divide them into "in character" and "out of character." 

Some out-of-character things for me are: 

(1) spending time getting to know my new MacBook Pro (which currently is sitting in its box, as it has for 10 days since purchase)

(2) going online to research what printer would work best with said computer (I avoid all online research)

(3) doing some kind of crafty activity at night, like making a photo album of my trip

(4) going out for breakfast (I did wake up at 4:00 am, after all) and having waffles or French toast

(5) going to some cheap restaurant like Dallas BBQ and not thinking about calories or where the meat was sourced from.

In contrast, some in-character things are:

(1) answering emails

(2) obsessing about the future direction of my career

(3) having dinner at the bar of my local pseudo-bistro (Bistro Citron on Columbus Ave)

(4) mentally announcing a new diet or exercise regimen

(5) calling up people to tell them about my jet-lag.

The in-character things are easy but unfulfilling — I feel tired even thinking of them. The out-of-character things are off-putting but sort of exciting — I'm not sure I will do them but feel a glimmer that I would like them.  (Except for the Dallas BBQ thing.  That just seems gross.)

So in a few minutes I'm going to OPEN THE BOX of my new computer and see what it's all about. ("What's the big deal?" Jason asked. "Don't you just turn it on?"  Umm, maybe.  But it seems hard.)

There's a big coaching principle behind this, which is: when we try to solve problems, we usually approach them from our preexisting points of view.  Meaning, the same way of thinking that has created the problem tries to solve the problem.  When we end up still feeling stuck, we try harder but usually stick with the same tools.  It usually doesn't occur to us that our method of dealing with problems may be inherently limited.  

When you are coaching someone, this becomes very obvious, primarily because you are a separate person from the person you are coaching. You can see that she is looking at things from a particular angle, and is blinding herself without knowing it to other options. (In Myers-Briggs speak, we would say, "you're being true to type." Which isn't always good.) 

But when it's just me and my own head, I don't always see it. Instead, I just dance around with the same annoying, draining thoughts until it occurs to me, "hmm, this is not fun.  What other options do I have?" That's why I'm practicing doing things out of character.

I suspect that doing things out of character has some additional benefits: there is greater potential surprise at the outcome, and you are more likely to engage deeply in something, since doing something out of character requires concentration. In contrast, things that are in character maybe do-able without that much thought, which means that your monkey mind can continue rattling on even as you do them. (Does anyone really feel free of negative thinking when reading and answering emails?)

By the way, another out-of-character thing:  actually writing a blog post when I have an idea, rather than nursing it for weeks or months until the moment is right for writing.

My Herminia Ibarra moment at the big coaching convention

Last November I went to the big coaching convention run by the ICF, which is the largest coaching membership organization. It was called the International Coaching Conference, and the "international" label was not entirely false, since by my guess around 15% of the attendees were from overseas, including places like Kuwait and Denmark. There were around 1,200 coaches of various ages, areas of focus, and personality type.

In the eight years I had been coaching, this was the first convention I attended. I should say at this point that I am not the best attendee at group gatherings. I like group energy, but I have far too many opinions about how things should be done and what the meaning is of whatever experience I am having to really chill out and enjoy, most of the time. My experience doing workshops and presentations in the past decade has actually made this worse, since, having spent a lot time thinking about how group events can be structured for maximum benefit, I am even less tolerant of poorly constructed group exercises and inadequate masters of ceremony. I try to be accepting and open-minded but I rarely succeed.

So imagine my surprise at how much I enjoyed my four days in Orlando. I liked the speakers, I liked some of the break-out sessions, I liked the group singing, I liked chatting up people from around the U.S. and overseas, I liked hanging out with my coaching buddies from Next Step Partners and the Hudson Institute of Santa Barbara, and I liked telling coaches from lands near and far about my book, The Creative Lawyer (which, sadly, most had never heard of but, happily, were excited to learn about).

More crucially, the parts I didn't like didn't really bother me. It didn't bother me that some of the break-out sessions were sort of lame, it didn't bother me that some people over-branded themselves (by which I mean, "I work with C-level executives") or said things that I didn't find 100% credible ("my coaching is based on the body, because where real change occurs").  My two basic inner responses were variants of "cool!" or "whatev–."  

I realized, "hmm, the people who annoy me in coaching annoy me less than people who annoyed me in my other jobs."  And "my moments of feeling I'm a misfit in this profession are less common and less significant than my moments of feeling I'm a misfit in my other professions."

I also felt, "I can contribute a lot to this field, and people are interested in my contribution."

The reason this was an Herminia Ibarra moment for me is that I did not predict these feelings. In her great book, Working Identity, Ibarra talks about how career development is a process of experimentation rather than analysis.  We are too complex and the world is too complex to ascertain ahead of time what the meaning of any experience will be. So the way you figure out your career evolution is by designing and deepening experiments.

Indeed, I would imagine that the reason I didn't come to this convention for the prior seven years is that I feared I would not like it. There are lots of coaches out there who never go to events like this for exactly that reason. They feel they might feel like they don't belong, or worse, belong to a big group of losers, so they avoid going.  Maybe their predictions would prove to be right, but it's more likely that they are missing out on something.

In my case, I loved the experience. It strengthened me, rather than weakened me, and inspired me, rather than filled me with doubts.  But even if I'd had the opposite experience, it would have been useful information.

Why I Love Kimpton

When I was in business school, I learned that hotels are not necessarily the best business to be in.  The market is fickle and very dependent on upturns and downturns.  In addition, apparently a lot of hoteliers are just people who like to entertain their friends in their nice hotels — hence they are not the most business-minded people. In other words, like restauranteurs, yoga studio owners, and people who own interesting gift shops with products made by artisans in the developing world, hotel owners are not always bottom-line oriented and therefore lose out. 

But the Kimpton Hotel chain challenges this belief (first articulated by my real estate professor in business school).  The Kimpton brand is a chain of boutique hotels.  They seem to be everywhere now, at least in the cities that I want to go to (sorry, Lincoln!).  Each one is different, but consistently fabulous — the way you'd want in a nice brand.  I've now stayed in the Hotel George and the Hotel Rouge in DC, the Hotel Marlowe in Cambridge (for my college reunion — more on that later), the Hotel Palomar in Atlanta, and now the Hotel Allegro in Chicago. They seem to be profitable, since they are growing and haven't disappeared in the recent giant recession.  They are very stylish, the service is awesome, and when I check in I feel like a glamorous kind of person.  And their rates are lower than what you might pay at Hyatt or similar. 

But the main reason I love Kimpton is that if you are a member of their Kimpton frequent guest thingie (of which you become a member simply by signing up) you get free internet access. And, crucially, all you have to do to verify your membership status is to enter your email address. No 10-character code required.  And, voila, you can spend your evening checking email.  Or blogging, as the case may be.

I'm making use of said service this very minute, here in Chicago.  I just saw my ABA editor and we had a swell time over drinks at the Wit Hotel.  I'm creatively inspired, and so decided to share with my seven or so dedicated readers my latest insight. 

Okay, I'm being bashful.  Let's say 20 dedicated readers.

Check out Kimpton!  They are pretty awesome.  

“Look, Mommy, it’s the President!”

My sister and her family recently moved from the Southwest
to the Washington, DC area.  She
has three young kids.

At Dulles airport, my three-year old niece looked around at
the assemblage of tourists and businesspeople, and saw a black man wearing a

“Look, Mommy!” she said, pointing at the man.  “It’s the President!”

I have told this story to a few people.  Some are not quite sure what to make of
it. Like me, most of my white friends are liberal Democrats, and we
well-intended liberals have a history of being anxious around any kind of
racial typing. 

On the other hand, my Mexican-American cousins love this
story. It resonates. They laugh heartily.  And so do all the black people I’ve
told it to.  My Haitian cab driver
in Atlanta thought it was great. 

Here in New York, an African-American female lawyer I know
clapped her hands in delight. 

“That’s a great story,” she said.  “She sees a president, not someone she’s supposed to run
across the street to avoid.”

This is what world-altering change is: seeing the world in a
fresh way.  We still have filters,
but they’re better than the filters we had before. 

Dominican intervention!

An attorney with a super-interesting first name from the Dominican Republic has just sent me a tough-love email intervention.  "What the hell's going on?  Why haven't you been blogging?"

Well, those weren't her exact words.  But the message worked.  I'm back!  Explanations and many fascinating stories and insights to follow.  

In the meantime, please enjoy this photo of peppy young volunteers in New York City who are encouraging people to drink delicious and healthful NYC tap water rather than insisting on wasteful and planet-destroying plastic bottles. 

When I took their photo, I said, "I want to take a picture of the people who are saving the world!"  Then the peppy girl said, "Sir, YOU have a nice day."

Water kids

This just in! It turns out I’m on Youtube

I learned that one of my presentations is on youtube.  It's a Google Tech Talk I did two years ago called "Create the Career You Want: A Non-Hyped Approach for Thoughtful Professionals."  (You will note that I am pre-Lasik.)

It's pretty good, if I do say so myself, especially if you ignore what seem to be rows and rows of empty seats.  There were people actually there!

Here's the link.

Debate camp

Every summer in high school I spent three week at the Golden
West Forensics Institute at the University of Redlands, which everyone called
“debate camp” or “Redlands.”  As
in, “are you going to Redlands this year?” or “I need to fill out my financial
aid form for debate camp.” There were three destinations of choice for
the ambitious 14-17 year-olds who participated in competitive speech and
debate:  Redlands, in Southern California; Northwestern; and

Kids came from all over the U.S. to Redlands. 
Every morning we’d have lectures several hours long about the topic in
question, usually led by college debaters in their 20s, and in the afternoons
we’d have different “labs” – debate lab, extemp lab, oratory lab, etc.  In the evenings, we burrow away in
libraries and in dorm rooms, researching evidence, typing quotes on ditto
sheets and cutting and pasting selections onto three-by-five index cards.   At lights out, which I recall was
around 11:30 pm, we’d cram towels around the doorframe so that our lights would
be invisible to hall monitors. 
There may have been social experiences sprinkled through by the Redlands
administrators.  At the end there
was a big tournament.   Some
kids slept around four or five hours a night for the duration.  But who needed sleep when a tournament
was coming?

Debate camp was awesome!  It was one of the highlights of my high school experience.  Debate camp is where I discovered kids
who were really smart and really competitive, and at times
multidimensional.  Debate camp is where
I discovered Jewish people.  Debate
camp is where I learned how to do real research.  Debate camp is where I developed a surprisingly large part
of my knowledge about the world, including topics like alternative energy,
healthcare reform, global trade, population control, and so forth.  The kind of debate we did was known as
“policy debate” and highly research-based.  So at age 15 I could explain how, in developing
countries, fertility declines when female literacy rises, or how very poor
families have really large families because they assume that many of them will
die, so that when you improve health you reduce family size and population growth.  This was all useful for potential
debates, but it sure informed me about the world.

There were stars within the debate camp world.  Imagine all of the honor, respect and
desirability of being a star athlete, except applied to someone known for his
or her intelligence and verbal dexterity. 
Going into my sophomore year of high school, one of our Redlands
instructors was Sandra Seville-Jones, who had just graduated from high school
and was bound for Harvard.  During
her senior year, she and her brother – they were an unusual brother-sister team
– had won 18 national tournaments, a remarkable feat.   Years later, when I ran into her in front of  Lamont Library at Harvard, I still felt
breathless at her star power.

Good times, good times.

The reason debate camp was so powerful and great for me, and
why I would recommend anyone put their kid in organized speech and debate, if
it’s available, is that it was one of the few activities I participated in growing
up that had no upward limit.  How
good could a seven-minute speech be with only a 30-minute preparation?  Well, the sky was the limit.  How smart could you be in debate?  Well, potentially as smart as some of
the smartest kids you’ve ever seen, if you put in thousands of hours of
work. By entering an
environment where I competed against others, in the end I just competed against
myself, and pushed myself farther than I thought possible.

A very large percentage of kids who participate in speech
and debate end up being lawyers, and often they do something in the public or
academic sector.  For instance,
Evan Caminker (two years ahead of me), who was the first person my partner and
I did a practice debate with, is now the Dean at the University of Michigan Law
School.  Preeta Bansal (one year
behind me), a Nebraskan I met at Redlands, became the youngest-ever solicitor
general for the state of New York and is now General Counsel of the OMB. High
school ultra-achiever star Sandra Seville-Jones (three years ahead of me) is
managing partner of Munger Tolles & Olson in Los Angeles. David Sklansky (one of our instructors), is a professor at Boalt, following a decade at UCLA law school.  (I add parenthetically that he is another liberal who emerged from Orange County — I'm not the only one!)

I spent thousands of hours in high school working on speech
and debate, and never quite knew where it would go.  But I didn’t think much about that because I was so in love
with, even obsessed by, the activity. 
I went from being an insecure kid with a lisp who spoke way too fast, to
someone who could easily address a crowd of a thousand.  I also learned how to construct an
essay, use words with impact, and stick to something hard for a really long
time.  Which is pretty much what
you want an education to do. 

Saying a lot, in few words


A couple of weeks ago I attended a week-long training on team coaching in Mexico City.  Aside from getting altitude sickness for the first couple of days (elevation = 7,700 feet), it was fun, energizing, humbling, filled with learning, and ultimately a Csikszentmihalyi-ish "flow" kind of activity.  (It was all in Spanish, hence the learning + humbling feeling.)

One of my new coach friends is Cecilia Garcia-Robles, who lives in Mexico City and who was part of my small group.  (You can't have a coach training without small-group projects, apparently.)  She studied with New Ventures West and Newfield Network, in case you follow such things.  We have the same Enneagram type — four.  She used to be a rocker and knows the lyrics to every Beatles song.

I love her blog.  She pairs very simple-but-significant statements and questions with great images. Lacking much visual sense myself, I admire this.  A great way to brush up on your Spanish while contemplating bigger things.  Check it out.