Separately and Together

With the holidays upon us and two extraordinarily difficult years behind us, I’ve been reflecting on the impact of long periods of isolation many of us have experienced. Curiously it’s not all bad, because I think we have learned to appreciate the time we have alone as well as with others.

Balance offers us a framework for interpreting our thoughts and actions in a dynamic set of circumstances we can neither predict nor control. Resilience is all about never ceding optimism to defeat, but all of us have a breaking point where too much uncertainty creates doubt in our sense of self and others. I think we need both individual and shared strength to be at our best, and holding onto hope that we can overcome doubt is very much an exercise we pursue separately and together.

As we ready ourselves for another year of daunting and exhausting challenges, here are a few perspectives I’m attempting to balance to better navigate the always unpredictable social landscape:

Separately we study in quiet;

Together we validate the suppositions of that study.

Separately we examine the data collected from our experiments;

Together we wrestle that data into a platform of possible directions.

Separately we read from the infinite library available to us;

Together we exchange ideas about those writings that inspire us to rethink our interpretations.

Separately we meditate and pause to block out compounding noise;

Together we find common ground in agreeing on what is noise and what is dialogue.

Separately we examine our values and define a personal mission;

Together we align our interests and develop a shared vision.

Separately we have control over our time to address personal distractions as they emerge;

Together we temporarily eliminate those distractions to focus on our vibrant interactions.

Separately we find comfort and reassurance in our chosen tribes of like opinions;

Together we break down the unnecessary barriers that fuel divisiveness and obstruction.

Separately we know truth in the privacy of our minds unless we are lazy in inquiry or choose to deny known facts;

Together we openly acknowledge honesty regardless of its inconvenience in recognizing the integrity of objectivity.

Separately we contemplate the complex nature of right and wrong;

Together we form bonds that drive behavioral norms around right and wrong.

Separately we embrace evaluation of our psychological motivations and inescapable biases;

Together we embrace diversity and bring necessary change to the marketplace of ideas.

There is little question in my mind that we need time separately to develop a clear-minded sense of self, purpose, and identity;

There is even less question in my mind that we must regroup together at regular intervals to build dependable teams, functioning communities, and enduring friendships.

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Photo: Pixabay

A Childhood Friend Passes

I said a final goodbye to a longtime friend recently. He was intensely private and not at all a fan of social media so I won’t name him here. I do feel the need to write about him, so I hope I am in-bounds handling this in the abstract.

We actually lost him during Covid, but the logistics of his memorial had to wait for travel arrangements. He wasn’t a Covid victim, perhaps just the timing. He had other medical issues that lasted all his life. I have known this person since we were 11 years old, which I believe makes him the longest-standing friend I have maintained. I didn’t do a great job of maintaining that friendship, but luckily I did visit with him right before Covid. He gave me a reasonably rebellious book right in line with his lifelong wit and irritation with the unreasonable. I gave him a copy of my last book. We never got to discuss either.

The medical condition that haunted him dates back to our earliest conversations. He never wanted anyone to feel sorry for him, but if you were in his circle, he wasn’t afraid to talk about it. It was a neuromuscular disease and although his entire life would be linked by operations and treatments, he refused to let his life be defined by it. It was existential. He understood existential.

Several years ago I wrote a tribute to Jerry Lewis when he died. I had been involved as a supporter and volunteer of the Muscular Dystrophy Association since childhood and strangely always felt a connection to Jerry. I remember discussing this with my friend in childhood. He had a mixed reaction to MDA. He appreciated all the donations that Jerry inspired to invest in research, but he was troubled by all the photoshoots and poster children. This friend was sufficiently progressive but never woke. When I wrote my piece on Jerry he wrote to me after a very long stretch of absence, almost out of the blue, a brief email to me that began:

“So I don’t get a mention in the Jerry Lewis post? I cried when he died. Loved him as a funny man.”

He then went on to blast MDA, a very harsh critique. You see, this friend understood the nature of a mixed bag. He could see light and dark in the same moment. Dark was really dark but light was talent, accomplishment, connection, selfless commitment.

Yes, a mixed bag. Aren’t we all? Particularly a half-century past the day we meet a childhood friend.

There were phases to our friendship following our seven years together leading to high school graduation. When I arrived in Los Angeles, I had nowhere to live, no money, no job. Just a college degree and hope. My friend was still in college here and welcomed me to sleep on his sofa until I could establish credit and find a place (it was actually his sister’s apartment, although he deftly negotiated my path in the door). I used to comb through the L.A. Times each day looking for apartment rentals and employment. Soon enough those came together and I moved on. I don’t forget that sofa. It was a symbol of friendship. I drive by that apartment every once in a while. Yes, the proverbial launchpad.

Years later when I was immersed in a writing assignment and seeking his feedback, he told me that someday he might want to write a movie or book. He wasn’t completely sure what he wanted to write about, but he told me with certainty he knew what the last line would be: “Let’s go home.”

There is a lot of resonance in those three words. Home for him was not specifically a place or even a metaphor. It is an idea, an aspiration, a Platonic Form.

He enjoyed a celebrated career in architecture and co-founded his own firm. He was a master of sculpture and ceramic design. He cherished historic structures and the learning to be found in the history of art. The notion of home was alive and well in all his aesthetic constructs. He clearly saw the natural extension of people into the curious things they chose to build, not always successfully, but hopefully with conviction.

Sometimes when I am getting to know someone, I ask them what three words they would most hope someone else would use to describe them. I never asked this friend that question because when your connection reaches back to childhood, you have a lot of time to think about it.

He was resilient. He was uncompromising. He was nuanced.

Resilient—because no matter the physical or character challenge he faced, he never backed away from it, never let it be an excuse or obstacle, never complained that he wasn’t dealt a fair hand, never asked for a different set of rules.

Uncompromising—because if you were wrong, he would tell you so, and even when you argued coherently that you weren’t wrong, he’d explain what you were missing in your evaluation and help you see why a counterintuitive approach might create a bridge to his logic.

Nuanced—because he knew wherever light entered a prism, its refraction could not be contained, mixing light and darkness in most forms of thought, the beautiful and the sublime in most expressions of art, good and not-so-good outcomes in too many of our intentions, however noble our purpose.

Our touchpoints form a pastiche of separately evolving but forever interconnected lives. A love of the water, whether on the natural coastline, an inelegant water skiing loop, or a boat shared with friends at sea. Political fairness and equal justice in limitless dialogue. The intersection of historical philosophy and pragmatic psychology. A belief that the courage to choose honest words matters more than our ability to perfectly craft them under pressure. An ardent shared defense of Bachman-Turner Overdrive. These are bonds time cannot undermine.

Lives together and apart twist and weave. Our relationships with each other are fluid. We don’t realize that when we come together and separate, but it is the course of things.

This particular friend’s family had a vast impact on me. Counsel from his father set my life on a course that has let me be who I am today. I wouldn’t be the same otherwise. It’s not just your friends who transform you. It is their circles and the circles you cannot imagine are forming in the background of your journey. When you look back, it is all so clear. At the time, it seems like just hanging out.

Sometimes I think there is no such thing as just hanging out. Everything can be consequential. You don’t know that at the time. That’s the scary part. We’d best pay closer attention all the time.

There are few realities more absolute than mortality. It is the universal link that humbles us all. It translates directly to the impermanence of our time together. That can be hours, days, years, decades, or most of a lifetime. We seldom understand it that way, because time does not reveal itself that way. The passing of time is certain, but not our shared intervals.

When we lose someone, we are reminded both of our own insignificance in the continuum of earthly events and our enormous significance in the impact lives can have on each other. I am thinking about that now in the span of a half-century, about what I did right and wrong in this friendship, what I could have done better, and how I am changed and shaped by this remarkable individual’s authenticity.

He left us with the perfect ending.

Let’s go home.

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Photo: Pexels

5 Brief Quotes That Keep Me Thinking

Are we turning the corner on a new day of reinvention and reinvigoration, or are we swapping one set of enormously complicated challenges for another?

I’ve been thinking about that a lot as Covid-19 vaccinations are welcomed by increasingly more people and the doors to a rejuvenated nation continue to open at an encouraging pace. Still, it’s hard to ignore that much of the conflict that existed in the pre-Covid world remains in the post-Covid world.

The economy is rebounding with optimism in investment, yet income inequality is as deeply embedded in our interactions as it has ever been. High profile convictions for the abuse of power have been handed down, yet racial injustice remains in the daily headlines. International travel is resuming, yet lives are being lost in battles across and within borders.

We remain too often divided and find little in the way of broad consensus that will adequately address sustainable remedies. Has the world learned anything from Covid-19, or are we picking up where we left off?

On days that are difficult to explain, I find myself looking to tiny bits of wisdom that keep me inspired and focused in good times, bad times, and when I can’t tell the difference. Here are five fragments I keep top of mind that I hope you will find perennial and inexhaustible.

“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” — Jackie Robinson

Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. He had every reason to be a pessimist given the treatment he endured, yet he was a fighter of the most noble order and seems to me a true optimist. He had a gift that he transformed into a cause. He led by example. He teaches me there is no other way to lead than by example.

“It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.” — Walt Disney

Walt Disney was another optimist, but in a different way. He focused on pushing the imagination to unimaginable bounds. He knew beyond all financial gain that our aspirations live in our dreams, and that our stories are mirrors of our souls. He teaches me there is creativity in all of us, and nurturing that expression is essential to our fulfillment.

“All we are saying is give peace a chance.” — John Lennon

John Lennon expressed this in lyrics, so when I hear it, it is more music than words. Is it pointlessly naïve to think after centuries of combat, conquering, and attack we can make the active choice to seek peace as he suggests? To think less seems to me impossibly cynical. He teaches me that hope is at the root of getting past the seduction of old ways, and those old ways find a terrible way of repeatedly deceiving us.

“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” — Anne Frank

Anne Frank left the world much too soon and in the unfairest of ways, yet it is the majesty of her child’s voice that reminds us initiative to improve is always within our grasp. Her courage holds the uplifting power to bypass the contaminants of cruelty in favor of a bias toward action. She teaches me that no matter the debilitating obstacles confronting our values, we must remain true to a commitment to heal the world.

“One voice can change a room.” — Barack Obama

Barack Obama is the one person quoted here who is still alive, tirelessly active in his advocacy for our shared wellness. He remains a controversial figure and his impact on our world will be debated long after his poetic voice passes into history. He often cites another of my favorite quotes around the arc of the moral universe. He teaches me there is intrinsic reward in tackling audacious goals, and that where progress may appear thin, there is ever more necessity in maintaining navigation toward a North Star.

That’s a lot to invoke in relatively few words. I have another batch of these I may share at a later date, and of course I would love to hear the words that inspire you in these ambivalent times. The concise wisdom of others is often enough to help us make a better decision, sculpt a bad choice into an improved choice, or just fire up our engines when fuel is hidden from our view. As I get older, I seldom see the obvious clarity I once anticipated would always reveal itself.

Sometimes you have to Think Different. Sometimes you have to think harder. Sometimes a little listening helps us discover the path beyond the noise.

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Photo: Pixabay

Air, Water, Food

AstronautThere’s no time like the present to set goals. Here’s a framework I use for myself and those I manage or advise.

I generally try to classify projects into three levels of priority before I consider adding resources to anything on deck: Air, Water, and Food.

In the unlikely event everything classified under Air, Water, and Food is done and behind us, I might move onto the next realm of importance, but generally, if it’s not Air, Water, or Food, it is going to get a very low priority,

I’m stealing broadly from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but suppose you were an astronaut in orbit and the red light in the capsule appeared. How do you set priorities? Largely by survival.

Without air, you have seconds to live.

Without water, you have days to live.

Without food, you have weeks to live.

Everything after that is discretionary.

Whether you are setting high-level goals or project priorities, try ranking your options into these categories.

What is Air?

In a services business, it might be customers.

In an e-commerce business, it might be secure uptime.

In product development, it might be an innovative, competitive technology solution that is worth marketing because it will surprise and delight customers.

“Air” initiatives are the items on your to-do list that if not attended to immediately may cause a business to be gone very soon. Sometimes they are obvious. Take the examples above. If you don’t protect your customers in a services business, you don’t have a business. If you don’t have a product worth selling, you don’t have a business. If you are selling online and you are not safely live to the world, you don’t exist.

It’s relatively easy to see the obvious examples of Air, but sometimes they are counterintuitive. I often write about People, Products, Profits—in that order. Are people, or the talent that drives your company, Air? The answer is absolutely yes—we cannot accomplish much of anything without the right team, but none of us has the unlimited capacity to hire everyone we want. It is precisely because talent is Air that it takes discipline to know which people you need now and which may have to wait. Your budget will always create some constraints, as will the availability of people you wish to recruit and the forced ranking of your priorities.

Of all the choices you make, Air should be the least subjective. When you feel it leaving the room, you know you are doing something vitally wrong. Don’t let Air get away from you, or the next two points won’t matter.

What is Water?

In a services business, it might be tailoring what is offered to individual customer needs.

In an e-commerce business, it might be sufficient variety of differentiated listings to attract and retain customers.

In product development, it might be the process management that lets you create a dependable schedule.

“Water” initiatives are what you need to build the business once you are certain the Air around you is sustainable. These are the projects in your organization that are essential, the ones that cannot be postponed unless there is an Air-eliminating crisis to address. Of course, if there are too many crises in an organization, you will never get to Water, and that will only keep you going slightly longer than losing Air.

Consider the example of product development: Air is ideation, the vision that will set your offering apart from those of your competitors. Water is the ability to deliver it. If you can’t create a project plan and product development schedule that you can actualize within your financial means, the concept won’t have any value. You need to be demanding about Water, but you also need to be realistic.

How important is knowing Water when you see it? Take the metaphor to its extreme: Suppose you have an abundance of Air, but you can’t get to Water. How long will you last? That’s how important Water is. It’s not Air, but it’s not far behind. Use discipline when you deem something Water. Everything that isn’t Air can’t be Water, or you’ll never have enough.

What is Food?

In a services business, it might be referrals, reputation, or word of mouth,

In an e-commerce business, it might be reliable customer service.

In product development, it might be the parsing of features and benefits to plan generational updates that improve upon each other.

“Food” initiatives allow you some discretion. You can live a relatively long time with just Air and Water, so you get to decide what constitutes Food and how to procure it creatively. If you make a mistake anointing something Food, perhaps prioritizing one product feature over another, if you’re wrong it probably isn’t the end of the world. That doesn’t mean you can be cavalier about determining your alternatives, but at least you’re out of the realm of immediate time pressure and into a set of choices where course correction is possible, even if you make a sizeable error in judgment.

I often suggest to people that one of the common elements of Food is time. Some people will think time is Air or Water, but a ticking clock is not the same as a clock that is not wound or has no power source. Time is something we all have to navigate, and we never have enough because of the deadlines we establish for ourselves or the demands of meeting customer needs. I prefer to manage time the way a good sports team works the game clock. There is an element of urgency with a game clock, but not desperation. You can use it as a motivational tool, or as a way to outsmart competitors. Time is always critical, but when it is too critical, innovation can take a hit.

Balance the Elements

Have a look at all the conflicting priorities around you. Force yourself to rank them into Air, Water, and Food. Chances are you’ll discover you are trying to solve for Food when you should be trying to solve for Air or Water. That might be why you are going in circles or nowhere at all. I have taken part in some heated constructive conflict about how to classify any given task in an organization, but I have seldom seen the framework for this kind of healthy argument fail to create a productive dialogue.

Agreed priorities are empowering. When you achieve consensus around Air, Water, and Food, you are making critical progress in your team building and goal setting. Measurable success is often lurking in meticulous editing.

Most important, if what you are working on is beyond the scope of Air, Water, Food and you’ve left these priorities behind, stop what you are doing immediately and rethink your course of action. If you haven’t got Maslow working in your corner at that basic level, the battery in your clock may be about to take away all your choices.

Own the clock. Always own the clock.

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Photo: Pixabay