Posts Tagged ‘work’


Christmas, Travel, and Rest

December 8, 2013

It is so very hard to fight through the commercialization and the sentimentality to find something I can call Christmas spirit. This year, as I near 175,000 miles of travel, pass 90 nights in hotels, and for the first time welcome back both kids from college, I’m drawn to the role of travel and rest in the Christmas story. The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the pilgrimage of the Magi, the flight into Egypt, the witness of the shepherds … that’s a lot of travel. Yet all these paths lead to peace: an infant son arrives, glad tidings abound, the world slows down and the sun finally reverses its southern trek in the sky. In the stillness of a cold winter’s night, the darkness is overcome.

Yesterday slowly filled me with the Christmas spirit. Not because of shopping or wrapping or music, though there was a bit of each. It’s because I got to spend the day with people I love. My in-laws spent Friday night with us after visiting with one of their sons and his family in Durham. We spent the morning chatting over coffee. Then I read and relaxed for a while before Vicki and I headed to see our dear friends Mark and Betsy, who have been mentors to us both. Their home was filled with Christmas, and it filled us–not just the treats and wassail, but also their kindness and curiosity. Vicki worked with Betsy for years at Duke, and it was from Betsy that Vicki’s commitment to service learning took root. Mark saved my Christian faith, introducing me to Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Richard Rohr, Robin Meyers, et al. When I met Mark I had essentially stopped thinking of myself as a Christian. Now I think of myself as a progressive, contemplative Christian. Thus the appreciation I felt in their home was just a reflection of the thankfulness I feel every time I see Mark.

After a bit of shopping for a wedding shower gift, it was a very special date night with the person who is most special of all to me. Vicki and I celebrated (the day, the season, our friends, our marriage, our family, our many blessings? sure, all of those) at one of our favorite restaurants, Provence. We’ve had a couple of anniversary dinners there, and this time, thanks to the gift of yet another dear friend, Maria, we were finally celebrating our empty nest–a week before the kids return to fill it for a few weeks! We topped the evening with latest installment of one of our favorite movie series, Before Midnight. Yes, Vicki and I love movies filled with a couple’s dialog. And there’s something precious about checking in with Jesse and Celine every nine years–how are they doing? How are we doing? Damn, we are doing absolutely great.

A full day, but not a stressful one. A day of rest from the road, from work, from the to-do lists of the holidays. A day to find peace in the darkness.


A harmful evaluation process is finally ending at Microsoft

November 14, 2013

Ding-dong, the brutally unfair “stack ranking” process is dead at Microsoft. The company announced that it would be using different methods of evaluating employees. As this NY Times piece notes, not only did this process discourage some recruits from joining the company, it also kicked out plenty of good employees.

The central flawed assumption behind stack ranking is that it assumes that 20% of your workforce is always doing an unacceptable job. It’s comparing employees to each other instead of to clear, measurable performance standards. It’s the opposite of the “Lake Wobegon Syndrome,” where “every kid is above average.” How many very good employees lost their job because, well, somebody’s got to be at the bottom of the pile? How incredibly sad to have to push potential out your door.

Another heart-breaking part of this: star employees not wanting to work together because only so many people get to be at the top of each manager’s rankings. Could Microsoft’s dearest rivals have concocted a shrewder policy: don’t let your sharpest people collaborate! I am delighted to hear that stack ranking is on its way out.


Sustained Attention

November 9, 2013

We are revising our workshop content, and I love the changes we’ve made. The approach is more positive, more affirming of work, and more active. In fact, our beta tests thus far have left our participants looking exhausted my mid-afternoon. After a session in Hawaii, I fell asleep restless. I couldn’t articulate what was bothering me about the way the day ended. When I awoke, the first two words that popped into my head were, “sustained attention.”

One of the central lessons we are teaching people is that, in an age of constant distraction and overwhelming amounts of information coming at us, we need to be able to give sustained attention to our work. And yet the second half of our workshop was a continuous feed of interruptions: a bit of direct instruction, some quick practice, a debrief, some video, find a new partner, on and on. We were not letting them practice what we were preaching. We need to provide them with some sustained attention to a new skill. I’m not talking about a day-long retreat or an hour-long work session. I think it’s hard these days to give something five minutes of focus.

The same issue has been dogging my lack of a writing practice. This post is an attempt to merge these two frustrations. I’m now going to look at my blogging as a place to practice sustained attention. I figure writing for five minutes is infinitely better than not writing at all.

This has actually taken more than ten minutes. I started on Tumblr, then decided this topic was WordPress worthy. I was briefly interrupted by the guy next to me on the plane here in Atlanta; he needed his charger for his phone while we’re still on the ground.

Here’s my challenge to myself: make a five-minute space in my day to write about something.


Beginner’s Mind

January 5, 2012

One of the most prominent books on Buddhism in America is Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (1970). At the risk of oversimplifying, the idea is that the beginner takes to a practice with a freshness and openness that can dim with experience. While I still enjoy going to baseball games, I have never felt the thrill I experienced the first time I saw the green green grass under the lights of Fenway Park, now 40 years ago. Suzuki gave the talks that became the book in part to help his budding Bay Area Zen community maintain their beginners’ minds as they learned to meditate.

I have now taught Precision Questioning+Answering over 200 times. Not only is it easy for me to forget what it is like to teach it a first time, it is even more challenging to imagine what it might be like to take the workshop for the first time. Last year I had two learning experiences which helped me re-experience beginner’s mind. In March I took Powerful, Persuasive Speaking from my friend, outstanding trainer, and philorator extraordinaire  Alan Hoffler. I entered the training figuring I had some polishing up to do, but quickly discovered that I was much more mediocre at speaking than I’d estimated. I found myself suppressing the desire to dismiss the lessons of PPS as superfluous or tangential to my own teaching–the ego is powerful, and mine was not prepared to have its limitations exposed. But the beginner’s mind is a humble mind, without pretense, and I quickly swallowed my pride and opened up to the possibility that I could become a much better presenter if I was willing to try the techniques taught in PPS. There was some pain in acknowledging my shortcomings, but once I set aside my ego the growth was astounding. The comments, written and verbal, about the quality of my presentations since I took PPS, are the highest and most frequent of my career.

In November I was browsing at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill when I stumbled upon ChiRunning by Danny Meyer. My travel schedule was making it hard for me to keep up with my over-40 pickup soccer group, and I had been thinking I needed to start to run more regularly, so discovering this book felt like the universe tapping me on the shoulder. ChiRunning applies tai chi principles to running, easing punishment on the body and making running an activity of both joy and focus. At the ChiRunning website I found a half-day workshop being taught in Raleigh Thanksgiving weekend, and I figured it would be a way to get quick feedback on applying the ChiRunning methods. But learning them required substantial changes; it was like learning to run all over again. Enter beginner’s mind: standing with a group of strangers, listening to our patient and kind instructor, Pat Reichenbach, and trying to run like I’d never run before, all required me to again put aside my ego, admit I was not very good at something, and then start getting better at it. I’ve been running this way for almost two months now, and while I know my form is not perfect, it is starting to feel more natural. Each run feels like it’s new still, which has invigorated my practice. I am really enjoying running, and hope a beginner’s mind will guide me each time.

It is not hard to admit I’m not good at quantum mechanics or the viola–most of us aren’t. But to admit I am not good at speaking or running is to acknowledge I have deficits in things we are all supposed to have a basic competence at. When I stand in front of a room of new PQ’ers, some of them might not want to admit they are not as good at asking or answering questions as they could be. My own experiences with


Beatitude Adjustment

January 30, 2011

This week’s gospel reading was Matthew 5:1-12, the Beatitudes. A quick word on my Beatitude Pet Peeve: American Christians who use verse 11 (“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (NRSV)). At the time Matthew was written, many people choosing to become Christians were taking huge political risks; and today, Christians in places like India and Iraq have been killed for their faith. But I think this verse gets overplayed here in the US, where the government comfortably supports us. Having your Wal-Mart greeter say “Happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” is not my idea of persecution, though it doesn’t stop some from annually claiming there’s a “war on Christmas.” Our faith should rest on stronger ground than a trumped up sense of external attack. We are safe here.

So on to the more realistic challenges I face, and I see others facing, as we do our work while trying to maintain our spiritual bearings. Based on the people I encounter as I teach PQ+A in many different places, I see verse 5 as the toughest beatitude to embrace. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” I think it’s hard for most of us to be meek at work. In our workshop we teach that there are times in our work when the most effective way to answer a question is with a great deal of conciseness. I regularly encounter resistance to this idea, and it runs along the lines of “My boss needs to know how hard I’ve been working on this,” “There’s so much more context behind a simple answer,” and “I need to justify my thinking.” There is, of course, validity to some of this, but I think that what underlies some of this response is a concern that just to answer the question takes a humility that may not be welcome. To be meek at work, in other words, might jeopardize our jobs. If we don’t defend our work, show how hard we’re working and how much we care about our work, while our peers have no such concerns, we run the risk of looking aloof, uncaring, disengaged. We don’t trust that the quality of our work alone will suffice. Aspiring to meekness feels like a recipe for disaster, but there’s Jesus, Sermonizing on that Mount, assuring us that God will bless us for it.

I know from my previous post that there are people reading this blog who are thinking about these things too. So I ask you: how do you try to be meek at work? Or is it not possible?


Resisting the Urge to Panic on Monday Morning

August 23, 2010

I woke up later than I’d planned. I’ve got a couple of writing tasks to accomplish this morning so I wanted to dive in early. My immediate reaction is to abandon the things I like to do at the start of the day (like a few minutes of yoga and/or 15 minutes of meditation) and just rush to the keyboard.

But I decided it would be a better plan to sit for the 15 anyway, and postpone the yoga until I need a break–perhaps after the first assignment is done. My hope is that my focus will be stronger if I swallow the panic, slow my whirling brain, then get to work.

I even sat for a couple of minutes at the table and ate my breakfast–no email, no Kindle. It felt great–I am ready to go. But the time of preparation is over. Time to produce. Let’s see what kind of writing this morning’s chosen path helps produce.

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