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Archive for May, 2010

No matter how hard you plan, how hard you focus your intention, how many people you conscript to work with you in the achievement of your goals, the future somehow manages to be something of an unknown quantity. The kings of yore summoned astronomers and magicians to help them interpret the faint outlines of the forming future, nowadays man has enlisted the help of technology to create predictive models for everything from the movement of the stock market to the movement of weather systems.

I’ve often thought that we’re lucky that few if any individuals can consistently read into the future, as we have a hard enough time dealing with the exigencies of the present moment. The fact that we don’t have the ability to consistently see the future ensures that life will be full of surprises. Regardless of your ability to peer into the future, how you handle the surprises that knock at your front door determines the quality of your life.

Occasionally we have the opportunity to look back in time, perhaps with greater clarity than the crystal ball affords those interested in coming events. History is a fascinating topic yet historical events are always translated through the eyes, heart and mind of the beholder (if they were even there). The historical facts and their respective lessons can vary tremendously from country to country, a fact that I learned while studying and travelling abroad during my adolescence and young adult years. It’s amazing how starkly different two interpretations of the same past event can be, even if the event took place only moments ago.  

Today is Memorial or Decoration Day in the United States of America. It is a time to remember and honor those who have lost their lives while in military service protecting our great nation. My grandfather once told me a story of a harrowing experience he had while at war, just after landing at Normandy. He was in a tank with his best friend and an enemy combatant managed to drop a hand grenade into the passenger compartment of his tank.

He recalled that time slowed down to the point that his memory of every second was filled with mountains of detail that you’d typically miss in a normal situation. He remembered the sights, the sounds and the smells as if he was explaining the room in which we were sitting. In a split second, my grandfather’s best friend leapt to cover the grenade with his body, saving the others in the tank but losing his life in the process.

War is a terrible thing. So much waste, so much destruction. Herodotus wrote “In peace, sons bury their fathers. In war, fathers bury their sons.” If ever there was doubt as to the existence of hell, war surely proves that hell is not only possible, it’s doors are open, right here on earth.

The freedoms of our Great Nation were earned, not bestowed upon us, its inheritors. Freedom from the tyranny of an oppressive government must never be taken for granted, as many have lost their lives over the decades to ensure that it could be given to you and that you could give it to your children.

Looking forward I see the possibility of wars and rumors of wars, but I am convinced that the right handling of the factors at hand can help mitigate the likelihood of their occurrence. An argument resolved between men can prevent escalation to a feud between families or a war between nations. The argument, feud, war chain can be broken.

I have long been convinced of the possibility of the brotherhood of man taking precedence in the hearts of men over the petty differences that seem to divide them. Sure the almighty dollar and the lust for natural resources complicates the matter tremendously, but it would be awful were we to let the world go to hell in a handbasket, for we have the power to transcend our differences and find common ground.

Don’t be so sure that just because we have experienced thousands of years of conflict, strife, wars and turmoil, there is now no other way. There is another way, but the courage to envision it and enact it must overcome the momentum that we have generated as a race. The future is shaped by today’s thoughts, words and deeds. Handle what comes to you today in a way that a bright and peaceful future has the best possible chance of manifesting in your heart and through your handiwork.

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Confucius

“To practice five things under all circumstances constitutes perfect virtue; these five are gravity, generosity of soul, sincerity, earnestness, and kindness.” – Confucius    

Confucius, who presented himself as a “transmitter who invented nothing,” left an indelible mark in the mind of man some 2,500 years ago. His teachings were compiled by his disciples after his death into a book called the “Analects of Confucius” and the philosophy or what some call the religion of Confucionism is based on Confucius’ desire to restore the “Mandate of Heaven,” to bring peace and prosperity to the people.      

I enjoyed a riding lesson today from a dear and relatively new friend who embodies the word sincerity. She taught from her experience, but what stood out to me most was her generosity, sincerity and earnestness in all she presented. As I was practicing my walk, trot and canter transitions the thought crossed my mind that where there is sincerity and earnestness there tends also to be a measure of selflessness. That selflessness, in turn, opens the door to positive and joyful experiences that in turn become fond memories.    

Anthony Robbins, the motivational speaker, once said that “Only those who have learned the power of sincere and selfless contribution experience life’s deepest joy: true fulfillment.” To know fulfillment you must be a giver and not a taker. Don’t hold back; make a positive contribution even if you don’t feel fully prepared or in the mood.    

Take the time today to let go of self-concern, to suspend your wants and fears long enough that the wellspring of fulfillment and joy begins to flow in and through you. No matter what your background, race, creed or color, you can practice the “five things” as they will help you navigate even the trickiest of circumstances.  

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As a father, a husband and a citizen of the world, I am compelled to do everything within my power to leave the world a better place than I found it. In my life I have witnessed many remarkable changes, the collapse of one of the world’s great superpowers, the invention of new modes of communication that make instantaneous communication possible worldwide and many more marvelous events and inventions, yet one of the most dramatic shifts I’ve seen over the last nearly four decades is found in the food we eat.

In my early childhood fast food was a rare treat, sugar and other sweeteners weren’t found in nearly everything and home-cooked meals were the rule rather than the exception. As I approached my 20s, however, the tide had clearly turned. The generations following in the footsteps of my fellow Gen-Xers found themselves nourished in a dramatically different landscape I once heard as described as “the land of over-consumptive malnutrition.”

In just one generation the world has turned on its head. America topped the health charts just forty years ago and each year since Americans have grown more and more unhealthy relative to their industrialized peers. The sad thing is that the majority of chronic diseases that in turn require the overwhelming majority of medical expenditures to address are preventable. The WHO says so, the CDC says so, the FDA says so and if you don’t care about them, logic says so.

When it comes to diet, the old saying “garbage in, garbage out” applies. We cannot expect to have healthy people if we don’t have healthy diet. The human body is a remarkable instrument, yet it, like all other things natural and man-made, has its adaptive and functional limits. Push things too far and the body starts to break down. Overtax its processing and purification systems and it becomes toxic.

Jamie Oliver, chef and passionate motivator, came to America seven years ago to start a food revolution. He moved to Huntington, West Virginia from the United Kingdom to raise awareness about the dangers of the modern diet. Take a few minutes to enjoy Oliver’s TED Prize acceptance speech, filmed in February 2010:

This is obviously a touchy area as people tend to be emotionally tied to their food choices. What they eat, how often they eat, how much they eat at each sitting (or standing or driving or lying down for that matter) is often conditioned by their mental and emotional state. Add to that the fact that most people feel too busy nowadays to be able to spend any more time than they already are thinking about food, and you have a recipe for disaster.

I applaud Jamie Oliver’s courageous approach to this systemic issue and am thrilled to have the opportunity to magnify his efforts in my living. If ever there was an area of human function that could benefit from a “back to the basics” campaign, it is this. Our health, the health of our children and the health of our nation depends on it.

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We live in an era of momentous change.  The industrial revolution feathered out and the information revolution feathered in over the course of the last century and the world is a different place. The digital revolution is transforming every aspect of our lives and economic activity is becoming more and more virtual. 

This massive shift in the economic activity of our workforce required and continues to require a retooling of the American worker. Retooling is achieved by re-educating the existing workforce and by reforming the educational system of the future workers. Corporate America has done well with retooling its human resources, offering training, guidance, career paths and so on that facilitate the shift.  Our schools, however, don’t appear to be making the grade.       

In 2002, UNICEF compared public education in 24 industrialized nations worldwide.  The United States ranked 18th amongst its peers. In the 1960s America had the highest graduation rate in the world, now it is struggling to hold onto #19.  Why this alarming trend?  Let’s consider it for a moment.     

Our present educational system traces its roots to a time when the great need was for industrial experts, white and blue collar workers capable of running the machinery that drove the American economy. Industrial thinking is very linear, inputs go through a process and become outputs.  Raw materials go in, finished goods flow out.  The more standardized a process, the better. Our schools, to put it bluntly, were designed in large measure to produce reliable factory workers.  The institutional architecture, the bells ringing on the hour and the standardized curricula created an environment and a mindset that produced an ideal worker for the era. 

Enter the information and digital revolution.  The world, once highly centralized, now is much less so. The American workforce as a result is now more mobile than ever, job changes often mean geographic changes and the idea of life-long employment one company quickly gave way to workers who change employers on average every two years.  An increasing number of the American workforce never visits the office, taking advantage of the opportunity to telecommute, working from home or perhaps a beach somewhere.

The needs of the former age – uniformity, conformity, predictability – are quickly giving way to the needs of our common era, namely: creativity, diversity and adaptability. Sir Ken Robinson, a fascinating and inspiring speaker presented a compelling talk at TED 2010.  He argued that education dislocates people from their natural talents and that human resources, like natural resources, tend to be buried deep underground.

Sir Robinson feels that simple reform is insufficient can calls for a revolution in education.  A revolution requires innovation, but how do we innovate fundamentally?  By challenging what we take for granted, what we think is obvious. Robinson makes the point that the challenge in any revolution is found in the tyranny of common sense. It can be quite difficult to get people to look beyond the model that they have been shaped by and the model in which their lives are deeply woven. 

Robinson uses this brilliant quote from Abraham Lincoln to emphasize the point: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.  The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion.  As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.  We must disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save our country.”

Enjoy his presentation:

We, as a nation, tend to be enthralled by the concepts of conformity and linearity, which as I said is the filmy overlay of times gone by. Much like biofilms in nature, these old memes can be hard to shake. Perhaps we can agree on one thing, for starters.  Human talent is tremendously diverse. Wouldn’t you agree? I am often amazed at the depth and breadth of talent contained in one person let alone across the spectrum of humanity.

Our education system, to be effective, must meet today’s needs.  There is little point in asking W.W.H.M.D?  (What would Horace Mann do?) as the world now is a very different place than when Horace Mann instigated educational reforms in Massachusetts that made educational available to all via a new public school system based on the earlier Prussian “common school” model. What must we do now, in our era, based on the unique configuration of factors that we face, to design an educational system capable of creating morally and intellectually strong young adult workers?

Robinson makes the case that the “industrial” model of education must yield to to an “agricultural” model. The need is for an organic model, not a mechanical one. We must  create conditions under which children will flourish, just as a farmer or a gardener would a field. We must personalize education so that the inherent and unique configuration of talents can be drawn forth, rather than stamped or painted on as would be the case in the linear, conformist model.

What do you think?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

By the way, Sir Ken Robinson has a great website worth checking out. See it here: www.sirkenrobinson.com.

Have a fabulous day!

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What is progress? 

I had to laugh when I read Norwegian ethnologist Thor Heyerdahl’s clever definition of progress.  He said that “Progress is man’s ability to complicate simplicity.” Despite our supposed progress as a species, human beings have a knack for making life more complicated, more challenging and harder to enjoy.  Most would agree that contentment comes from enjoying the “little things” in life, yet the mad and unrelenting pursuit of the next best thing keeps the majority of people, particularly in developed nations, rather busy.

Progress is made possible by those who “do” moreso than by those who talk about doing. Some, like Oscar Wilde, feel as he put it that “[d]iscontent is the first step of a man or a nation” while others, like science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein, feel that “[p]rogress is made by lazy men looking for easier ways to do things.” Whatever the cause or motivation, progress is made possible by the “doers” in this world.

If you have ever devoted yourself to the learning of some new skill, you know what it takes to progress.  Here are a few points that will will help you be a successful “doer,” capable of progressing in any activity you undertake:

  1. Learn the principles at work. For example, if you are learning to cook healthy meals, a general awareness of the principles involved that govern the activity is always helpful and can complement a natural or internal sensing of what is right and fitting.
  2. Familiarize yourself with the historical context. Sometimes an awareness of the historical factors that have shaped the development of the activity are useful knowledge. If you are starting a new business, for instance, an understanding of the development of your industry and of the evolution of the needs of the market you serve can be quite an advantage.
  3. Find out what has worked and what hasn’t, but don’t stop there. Past failures can help guide you as much as past successes, but occasionally progress is made because someone was ignorant of the fact that it “couldn’t be done.” Dare to move beyond what others say is or isn’t possible. 
  4. Apply yourself consistently and avoid as much as possible movement by fits and starts. Anyone who has dieted or sought to improve his fitness levels is likely painfully familiar with this necessity. If you decide to make progress in an area, stick to it.  Make it a priority. Distractions always come, and he who is most graceful at handling the distraction and then picking up where he left off is most likely to enjoy steady progress.
  5. Maintain your focus and attention after break-through or “aha!” moments. Progress can be stopped by inattention following a victory. Taking too much time patting yourself on the back or seeking approbation can lead to taking your eyes off the next step. A friend of mine once completed an amazing bicycle trick on a half pipe only to crash on the other side as he looked back to see the reactions of his friends.
  6. Develop the habit of bringing solutions rather than reasons why it can’t be done. Nothing places more of a drag on progress than complaint, whining and pessimism.   

Teddy Roosevelt said wisely that “It behooves every man to remember that the work of the critic , is of altogether secondary importance, and that, in the end, progress is accomplished by the man who does things.” Progress is the natural state, and fortune favors those who can adapt to the necessities of the moment.  If you regress or digress, you’ve likely misread the clues and cues given to you by life. Move quickly to regain the perspective necessary to rejoin the path of progress and you will minimize pain, suffering and the endless round mistaken for life. Don’t delay progress another day.  It’s not worth the trouble!

Have a great day…

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A long-standing central desire of mine is to help my fellows live healthier, happier lives. I do my best to center my words, my work and my living on the theme of life enhancement, yet I am often surprised by how rarely people tend to act on what they know they need to do to live healthier, more balanced lives. A circuit breaker blows somewhere between recognition of the need for change and actualization of the change and the change isn’t made.

I recently came across a promising area of behavioral research called Self-Determination Theory (SDT).  Developed by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, professors of psychology at the University of Rochester, SDT is concerned with supporting our intrinsic tendencies to behave in effective and healthy ways. Isn’t that fascinating? 

The SDT research is relevant to my work in the wellness field.  My aim as co-founder of The Spa on Green Street, a destination day spa in Gainesville, Georgia, was to create a setting that could not only inspire, but facilitate the lifestyle changes necessary to healthier living. Easier said than done.  Believe me.  Helping people to follow through on changes that they know they need to make, even in the face of debilitating illness or even death, can be quite a challenge!

The University of Rochester’s website on SDT (http://www.psych.rochester.edu/SDT/index.php) notes that the three psychological needs – autonomy (you are making your own choices), competence (you can get help and you have confidence in your ability to change) and relatedness (known as there is a meaningful relationship with a guide/health care practitioner who respects and understands you) – are either supported or thwarted by the social context in which you live, work and play.  

The lifestyle changes that lead to improved health cannot be made in a vacuum.  They must be made real time, in the middle of a typically chaotic and fast-paced life.  The changes initially put pressure on you, on those who are within your immediate sphere of influence and the blowback is not always pretty.  Spouses get upset (“Why do you have to include me?”), children revolt (“I’m not eating that?  It’s your problem not mine!”) and the no-man’s land between taking the initial baby steps and the appearance of tangible, visible, notable evidence of forward movement is daunting, if not downright intimidating.  Once there is evidence the process becomes easier, but until then, keep your head low and move as quickly and as diligently as you can!

Goals are necessary but rarely sufficient to compel change in most people. The same could be said about the looming threat or the likely repercussions of not doing something that needs to be done. Many of the medical practitioner clients of a homeopathic/botanical/nutritional company I work with, Energetix Corporation, will be the first to tell you that eliciting compliance is one of the greatest challenges they face in their practices.  Patients get fired up at the start of a process, but making it all the way from Point A to Point B can be terribly frustrating for everyone involved.

SDT is seeking to isolate the elements that ultimately help people overcome the inertia of wrong function. Researching topics such as mindfulness, vitality and passion are helping people to align their goals and behaviors. An article in the LA Times earlier this year made note of the TGIF (Thank God it’s Friday) phenomenon (http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/booster_shots/2010/01/weekends-jobs-happiness-wellbeing.html), noting that people, no matter if they enjoy their jobs or not, tend to be happier on the weekends.  Why?  For the very reasons that the SDT researchers note.  The question to me is how can we engineer environments – work, home, school, etc. – that effectively nourish these basic psychological needs? 

You need the emotional wherewithal to follow through on the changes you know you need to make.  You must let their karma run over your dogma, as it were, so that the intrinsic compulsions to health, to greatness, to the expression of genius can be aligned with the extrinsic forces that are at play in your world. And remember, no two people are the same.  So an individualized, custom-tailored plan for you is much more likely to hit the mark and produce sustainable changes in your life.  

I encourage you to look into the research being done on this topic and I look forward to hearing your comments.

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The story of the New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc. (NUMMI) plant, a joint venture between General Motors and Toyota Motor Company that began in 1984 and ended this past March, offers powerful lessons for American corporate and political leaders. As part of the joint venture, Toyota showed GM the secrets of its production system, one that created cars of higher quality and lower cost than GM was capable of producing. Given this knowledge, why did GM fail 25 years later?

General Motors, long a symbol of American corporate might, found itself on a long slide beginning in the 1970s that began with eroding market share and ended with the largest bankruptcy filing in the history of the United States. Ira Glass, host of NPRs This American Life describes in this wonderful show how a car plant in Fremont, California might have saved the U.S. automotive industry. The show is 60 minutes long, but I highly recommend that you take the time to listen when you get a chance.

http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/403/nummi?bypass=true

I lived in Detroit in the mid 1980s, when Japan-bashing was in vogue. Japanese cars were destroyed by angry mobs of people, a scary sight, one that impressed upon my teenage mind the ugly side of nationalism. Realizing that this NUMMI project started in that era really got me thinking this morning.

Our great nation is facing a similar challenge today. While the United States remains the political and economic hegemon in the world today, its position seems more tenuous than ever. Like the GM Freemont plant before the NUMMI project, our workforce is in relatively poor shape, we’ve lost much of the manufacturing base that made our country great, our rights have become greatly restricted and our educational and medical systems are losing ground.

While I am not advocating copying any other country’s systems, I do feel that we can adapt to the new world much more quickly than we are. What will it take?

For starters, a resuscitation of the American spirit. The American spirit – the esprit de corps that earned our country its place in history – still beats in the hearts of our men and women. It is, however, smothered with layers of regulation, oxidized by years of disuse and in desperate need of inspiration.

Secondly, we need to eschew any ego-centric and isolationist tendencies. While it is no doubt easier to see in hindsight than while in the thick of it, the insular culture at GM likely blinded many involved in the company to the reality of their eroding leadership in the automotive industry. They failed to “Leggo my Eggo” at a critical time and the results were devastating and in many ways, inevitable based on that state of mind.

Finally, we need to restore respect, honor and decency to their rightful place in our homes, in our schools and in our workplaces. In far too many cases people feel incapable of offering solutions because they feel that if they do they won’t be heard. The tragic divide between labor and management in our nation’s automotive workforce are the perfect example of this need. If we are to succeed together, we must look to work more cooperatively in every area of our function. Hiding behind rules instead of encouraging and rewarding integrity, regulating instead of teaching responsibility, blindly following traditions and relying mindlessly on prejudices versus thinking things through, will always compromise our efforts together.

As a nation we must return to an emphasis on quality. Quality of expression. Quality of forethought. Quality in execution. Quality of care. Just emphasizing quantity – being the biggest, selling most, being the most powerful – is not a sustainable approach. We must look carefully at our businesses, our medical system, our schools and in our governments to see where we are destroying ourselves from the inside out with such mantras as “Never stop the line.”

The world needs evidence of leadership that sets the standard well above the mean. I am convinced that mankind will hew to such a standard if given half a chance, as did the GM “lifers” who were transformed by their experience in the NUMMI project.

“Mankind” is a general term. To be more specific, will you rise to the challenge?

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