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I was inspired by my friend Chris Penn’s “11 Little Secrets” post this morning to come up with my own list here and encourage you all to do the same on your own blogs. It’s always interesting to see what makes people tick, especially if their little secrets can be helpful to someone else.

The model is simple. To quote Chris:

We strive desperately to look for the next big thing, the next big secret, the magic wand that will make everything better. What we tend to overlook – or most of us, anyway – are the little secrets, the little hacks and tweaks you can make to your day, your year, your life to help things operate better.

Bingo. So you know what? I gave it some thought, made a list of little things I do that seem to work for me, picked 11 that weren’t too business-specific, and created my very own “11 Little secrets.” Here they are, in no particular order:

1. Cut back on the meat and eat more fish. I know, I know… What the hell am I talking about? This is a Brand management blog, not a nutrition blog. But bear with me here. This actually impacts my work in a big way, and it is one of my little secrets. And as an aside, before the beef lobby jumps on my case like they did Oprah, let me just say I love steak as much as the next guy. In fact, I’m French, dammit: I love lamb chops, rotisserie chicken, smoked ham and foie gras, just for starters. But at the same time, meat has taken a serious back seat from my diet in the last few years, and I have seen some pretty amazing positive health results come out of it. Among them: lower cholesterol, a lot less body fat, less aggression, better sleep and more energy all day long. I still need animal protein to support a pretty active lifestyle, so I eat a lot of fish and seafood. Whenever I can, I go raw, but fish is fish. Cutting back on meat or cutting it out altogether might not work for everyone, but it’s worked VERY well for me. Bonus: Omega 3 fatty acids.

Why does this matter? Go back a few sentences: “less aggression, better sleep and more energy all day long.” Aside from having more energy and sleeping better, I don’t know if it’s because my system isn’t flooded with growth hormone anymore or what, but rarely being angry about anything does wonders for a guy who loves to argue as much as I do. Has being less aggressive made me less argumentative? Nope. But has it helped me keep a cool head in the middle of heated debates? You bet. And there’s a lot to be said for the advantage of a calm and controlled mind when trying to argue a point.

Negatives: No more bacon, and the prospect of dying of mercury poisoning.

2. Spend at least 30 minutes every day reading something that doesn’t touch on your line of work. It doesn’t matter if it’s the latest editorial in GQ or a work of historical fiction. Just do it. A) Your mind needs a break from Twitter, blogs and business white papers. B) Your brain needs cross-training. Me, I call it active recovery. It’s nice to completely unplug (even thematically) and I can definitely tell the difference between weeks when I read and weeks when I don’t in my ability to think critically and find quick, creative solutions to complex problems.

Personally, I’ve recently gotten into Conn Iggulden’s novels about Genghis Kahn and Julius Caesar, and that isn’t bad brain candy as far as I’m concerned. On one hand, it’s nice to unplug without necessarily surrendering your brain to American Idol or Tool Academy, but on the other, reading about military campaigns and political strife helps me visualize business problems from a completely different perspective, without even realizing that my brain is making those types of connections.

Reading engages different parts of the brain that, in turn, contribute to the processing of information. Cross training for the brain is absolutely one of the most valuable benefits of reading about things that have nothing to do with work. So read your business books, but also remember to read other things, just for fun. Bonus: It doesn’t suck to have things to talk about that don’t involve Marketing and Social Media. For extra credit: Read in more than one language.

Negative: Missing out on really great infomercials, I’m sure.

3. Be an athlete (even if you don’t necessarily think of yourself as one). The human body wasn’t meant to spend all day at a desk, in front of a computer, eating packaged food products. Spend an hour walking, running, cycling, swimming, pushing weights, throwing truck tires, punching bags, getting thrown on a tatami, riding bulls… something. Put it in the schedule. It isn’t something you do “when you find the time.” Sound body, sound mind. It relieves stress, oxygenates the brain, gives you a break from the grind, lets you work out your frustrations, makes you feel empowered, and it’s good for you. Tell your boss this is important to you, and they’ll make sure they don’t call you during that extra special hour of “active meditation.” That time belongs to you. It’s yours and yours alone. Plant your flag in your daily schedule and protect that hour with your life. (It may return the favor someday. Literally.)

I’m a triathlete with a propensity for martial arts and boxing, so you can imagine that hardly a day goes by without some kind of activity. The way it works for me is, my gym workouts help me stay strong and limber, while the racing helps keep me swift and lean. If you aren’t into intense or prolonged athletic activity, find one that requires a good deal of learning and skill that will help you keep your mind engaged without tearing you a new lung.

Some examples: Aikido and Judo are relatively “soft” but rewarding martial arts. No kicking, punching or breaking boards required, but full bodymind workouts you’ll learn to enjoy. Scuba diving is also a pretty fun activity you can tie into most vacations that doesn’t require you to run ten miles every day. There are sports out there for every personality type and budget, so do some research and try a bunch until you find something that works for you. And don’t be afraid to mix it up. variety is good for the mind and the body. Bonus: The extra confidence you will gain from your athletic practice. Extra bonus: You get to wear designer clothes right off the rack.

Negatives: Often being surrounded by old naked dudes hanging out naked in locker rooms, naked.

4. Cook. I don’t just cook because I’m French. I cook because it’s easier to play with my food in the kitchen than at the dinner table. Remember that kid who used to blow up the chemistry lab every other week because of his “experiments?” Yeah, that was me. Now, I get my kicks mixing yellow peppers with raisins with sour cream to make a sauce for my mahi-mahi.

  • A) It’s fun.
  • B) It brings you closer to your food, which is important.  When you actually touch it, prepare it, cook it, you respect it more. You understand the relationship between the food you eat and the way it affects your body a lot better.
  • C) You’ll ingest a lot less hydrogenated oils, corn starch, sodium and high fructose corn syrup, which will make your doctor very happy.
  • D) You’ll find yourself buying and eating a lot more fresh vegetables.
  • E) The amount of packaging you won’t be throwing away every year will be impressive. No need to recycle a whole lot when most of what you’re throwing away is biodegradable.

Who has time to cook, you ask? I’ve never made a meal that took more than 15 minutes from start to finish. Make time. PS: By cooking, I don’t mean boiling noodles and heating up a jar of pasta sauce. I mean wash produce, cut stuff, mix ingredients together, blow off the cookbook, and try new combinations of foods just to see what happens.

Aside from the above benefits, why is this important to you as a professional? First, if cooking become a relaxing activity (a fun one, even) it ceases to be “work.” Un-chore yourself. Second, it gives you a lab in which you can conduct experiments and be creative every day. That kind of stress-free experimentation is a healthy exercise for professionals with lots of tight deadlines and high stakes jobs.

Negatives: More dishes, and the occasional really horrible meal.

5. Write. Yes, with a writing instrument like a pen or pencil. Keep a journal, write short stories, take notes… whatever. It doesn’t matter. I dig typing up blogs as much as the next guy, but I also walk around with a Moleskine everywhere I go. When I’m on a plane, in a waiting room, on the subway or in a coffee shop, I pop that puppy open and write stuff down. If writing letters is a lost art, then journal. Put pen to paper, literally. It’s good to practice the lost art of writing (Post-it notes don’t count), and you’ll be glad you did a few years from now when your personal archive is volumes-thick. More importantly, your kids will thank you someday for having left behind so much of yourself for them to discover.

Writing is important. As old-school as it may seem, it matters. Bonus: Writing helps you think. Don’t just consume information and opinions, create your own. And man, write an actual letter to someone by hand, and see how much they’ll instantly like you more.

By the way, for some clever Moleskine hacks, check this out.

Negatives: Always losing your favorite pens in airports, cabs, restaurants, hotels and conference rooms (unless you have a clever hack).

6. Sleep. Going on 4 hours of sleep per night isn’t enough. It isn’t healthy. Sleep and rest are as important, if not more, than anything else you can do for yourself. Treat your body with respect: Sleep. Sure, sometimes I get caught grabbing the red-eye from hell after three weeks of bouncing from time zone to time zone (a GMT watch helps, by the way), but as soon as you can, get that A-type sleep deprivation thing under control and give your body (and your brain) time to adequately recover. Your body can go without food or water longer than it can go withouts sleep. That’s pretty telling.

I look at my own immune system, and I can tell almost within 48 hours whether lack of sleep is affecting my health. I know there aren’t enough hours in the day. Believe me. I’m there. Guess what: You can’t cheat biology. Get your sleep on. Consider it part of your job. (Just don’t do it… on the job.)

Negatives: Looking younger than your actual age may slow down your advancement. (The C-suite tends to take you less seriously when you look young.)

7. Eat breakfast every day. Scientists and nutritionists aren’t wrong about this. Make yourself a bowl of cereal, bite into an apple, eat a tub of yogurt… whatever. Some people dig a croissant and latte. Others prefer a fruit salad and a shot of kefir. It’s all good. Don’t skip it. My usual when I am not traveling is a 1/2 cup of dry oatmeal with a cup of milk (nuked for 2 minutes) with a small handful of raisins thrown in. I follow that with a banana, a protein shake, a few scrambled egg whites and a huge glass of water. When I travel, I go with the croissant and coffee/tea thing. It doesn’t matter what you have for breakfast as long as you eat (and drink) something.

Negatives: The food dispensing machine down the hall will sell you less potato chips and candy bars.

8. Allow yourself at least one guilty pleasure. Being 100% efficient and serious doesn’t cut it. You can’t take yourself too seriously all the time. Learn to unwind and allow yourself some guilty pleasures. How guilty the pleasure is entirely up to you, but here’s a list of mine recently:

TV: Spartacus: Blood & Sand, Real Time with Bill Maher, LOST, Bully Beatdown, Funny Or Die Presents, Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares (UK edition), Top Gear.

Reading: GQ, Esquire, Conn Iggulden novels, the B&H catalog.

Foodstuffs: Nutella, Apple slices with peanut butter, Cadbury eggs, Starbucks lattes.

Digital: Call of Duty- Modern Warfare (X-Box Live), Left 4 Dead II.

See, it isn’t all R.O.I., is it.

Negatives: Having to defend the awesomeness of shows like Spartacus: Blood & Sand.

9.  Collaborate on projects with people you admire. If you’re lucky, you get to do this all day long. If not, jump on any opportunity that affords you the privilege of working with someone whose work you really respect. Someone you’ve been dreaming of working with for weeks or months or years. When I still worked for the man, this was difficult to do. I was pulling 60 hour weeks with project teams that were more assigned than chosen, so I rarely got to enjoy the pleasure of working with a true soul-brother/soul-sister on projects I could really get excited about. Now that I have a little more power over who I get to work with, I get to be a little picky about who gets my time and who doesn’t. I can pick and choose my projects and collaborators, and let me tell you: It makes a HUGE difference on the quality of my work and the quality of my life.

A few examples, right off the bat: Keith Burtis and I collaborate on our weekly “More Ideas Than Time” podcast. It takes up about two hours of my time every week, and let me tell you: Well worth it. I also work regularly with folks like Scott Gould, Trey Pennington, Kristi Colvin, Kim Brater and Alicia Kan, and again: It’s nice to be surrounded by such talented professionals who help you raise your own bar on a regular basis.

Negatives: Often being the dumbest guy in the room.

Positives: Often being the dumbest guy in the room.

10. Take risks every day. Playing it safe doesn’t help you grow. It doesn’t teach you about yourself. And frankly, it’s boring. Look, I am not advocating that you base jump from the roof of your office building or gamble the family fortune away on internet poker sites. Not at all. But do push the envelope just a little with something every day. Be wise, be responsible, be smart about it, but don’t shy away from a little risk on a regular basis. Sometimes, I push a corner a little hard when I come down Paris Mountain on a bike ride (cycling, not vroom-vroom). Other times, I gamble on a client whose credit isn’t stellar. I occasionally take on a project that is a bit outside of my comfort zone. I try hotels and restaurants off the beaten path. I’ve gambled my bonus on double-or-nothing odds if I could hit a target my boss thought was a longshot. I’ve lost some, but I’ve won some too.

The equation is simple: It’s all about risk vs. reward. Every risk has to be worth the reward. Every risk has to be calculated. And if you lose, it has to hurt, but not necessarily too much. Another rule: Never gamble with someone else’s well-being. You can put your own neck on the line, but that’s it. (Unless you ask permission first.) Push, learn, adjust. Push, learn, adjust. Repeat. You never win without risking something. Whether it’s embarrassment, a bloody lip, your monthly bonus, it doesn’t matter. Victory and success won’t find you waiting patiently at your cubicle. If you want to win, you have to put some skin in the game.

Negatives: Frequent run-ins with either the law, pavement, ambulances, knuckles, or the boss’ office. The occasional foot-in-ass. Mouthfuls of dirt or crow.

Positives: Winning often, in spite of the occasional negative.

11. Find your own voice and let it out at least a little every day. You aren’t the next Chris Brogan, Jack Welch or Steve Jobs. You can’t be, because those jobs are already taken. And frankly, we don’t need another Chris Brogan, Jack Welch or Steve Jobs. They’re doing fine all on their own. These folks are unique because their contributions to the world are unique. President Obama, Clint Eastwood, Joan of Arc, Julius Caesar, Anne Frank, Gandhi, all  people with individual contributions to the world. Where pioneers go, no one has gone before. That’s the trick. That’s the ticket. You want to be an icon, you have to make your own way, and that starts with finding your own voice.

If what matters to you is that next promotion to VP Marketing, then don’t worry about any of this. Do your job, hit your targets, kiss the right rings, and you’ll make it. But if you truly want to be a force in the world, an influencer, a star in some way shape or form, you have to listen to Robert Frost and chose the path less taken. Heck, you have to take it a step further and take the path not taken yet: The path that still hasn’t been carved out by anyone. Go where no one has gone yet, and once you’ve made some headway, call out “hey, this way!” If people follow, you’ll know you’re on the right track. That path starts with finding your own voice.

Negatives: None. Life’s too short.

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Via the SwampFox Insights blog:

“The majority of the world’s designers focus all their efforts on developing products and services exclusively for the richest 10% of the world’s customers. Nothing less than a revolution in design is needed to reach the other 90%.”

—Dr. Paul Polak, International Development Enterprises

The man has a point.

Check out this brilliant website.

A lot of people don’t think of “design” as being all that important, because our daily interactions with “design” are limited to gadgets like the iPod or the latest pair of Oakley sunglasses, or maybe a faucet or something. Maybe we think of design when it comes to cars and clothes and furniture. But smart design can also save thousands of lives every day. Yes, something as seemingly superfluous as “design” can change the world. (Starting with the first tool, taking a detour via the wheel, and fast-forwarding to the millions of things we now take for granted, like the plasma TV, the hybrid automobile, the artificial heart, and even the ubiquitous bottle of Coca Cola.

If you aren’t the humanitarian type and couldn’t care less about saving lives, bear in mind that design can also create entirely new markets. (We just talked about getting there before the herd, so your ears should be perking up just about now.)

How can smart design can create new markets? According to this article in the New York Times entitled “Design That Solves Problems for the World’s Poor” (annoying subscription required):

“A billion customers in the world, are waiting for a $2 pair of eyeglasses, a $10 solar lantern and a $100 house.”

For starters.

That’s something to think about. Not in terms of exploitation, but in terms of wealth and opportunity creation. (The development of the easy-to-use, virtually crunch-proof windup $100 laptop – specifically designed to introduce computers and the internet to 3rd world children – is probably among the most ambitious of these types of endeavors, but also a great example of how we can start to create opportunity in regions of the world in which mere survival is still the order of the day.)

While everyone else is trying to appeal to the richest 10%, maybe, just maybe, the real opportunities are elsewhere. Maybe the time to get into these markets is before they even exist. The seeds are being planted now. The herd is starting to gather. Maybe by the time the market exists and the pastures are green and lush, you’ll find yourself in the back again. Maybe you’ll kick yourself in the butt for not having made a move sooner. (History repeats itself.)

What if you could create one of the most lucrative companies of the 21st century AND save tens of thousands of lives at the same time? What if you really could be enormously successful AND help save the world all in one fell swoop? What if you could have your cake and eat it too?

In this economy, perhaps these are questions worth asking yourself – especially if you are a US or Western European manufacturing company looking for a reason to go on.

Don’t even approach the problem from a humanitarian standpoint if you don’t want to. Approach it from a business standpoint. Here’s the problem you need to solve: 90% of the planet’s population wants something that they probably can’t get very easily. All you have to do is figure out what that is, how much they’re willing to pay for it, and how to get it to them. It could be a mode of transportation. It could be a light source. It could be a sanitary product. It could be food. It could be a garment. It could be knowledge. It could be something as simple as a tougher bicycle wheel. It could be anything.

There is no single answer. There are probably thousands upon thousands. And that’s exciting.

Whatever it is, it could also have applications right here, where the richest 10% of the world population lives and eats and shops 24/7/365.

It might even be a better option than trying to become the next Google.

Food for thought.

So… what are you working on right now?

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Ever noticed how positive attitudes are infectious? You walk into a store, and everyone who works there is jazzed and happy to be there and energetic… and by the time you leave, you have completely adopted their mood?

Ever noticed that the opposite is also true: Walk into a business where everyone is negative or apathetic, and you find yourself feeling the same dread and negativity?

Sitting in Houston’s Toyota arena with thousands of the world’s most innovative Microsoft partners, I was reminded of the power that other people’s attitudes and moods have over our own – and remembered a post that Kathy Sierra shared many moons ago on her brilliant but now sadly defunct “Passionate Users” blog. It talked about happy vs. angry people, emotional contagion, and the role mirror neurons play in our involuntary tendency to be drawn into other people’s positive or negative attitudes. Very cool stuff, and particularly relevant to some of the discussions I have been involved with in the last few days with some of my international peers. I did some quick digging to find it so I could share it with you. Here are some of the highlights:

Mirror neurons and our innate tendency to pick up other people’s behaviors, good and bad.

There is now strong evidence to suggest that humans have the same type of “mirror neurons” found in monkeys. It’s what these neurons do that’s amazing–they activate in the same way when you’re watching someone else do something as they do when you’re doing it yourself! This mirroring process/capability is thought to be behind our ability to empathize, but you can imagine the role these neurons have played in keeping us alive as a species. We learn from watching others. We learn from imitating (mirroring) others. The potential problem, though, is that these neurons go happily about their business of imitating others without our conscious intention.

Think about that…

Although the neuroscientific findings are new, your sports coach and your parents didn’t need to know the cause to recognize the effects:

“Choose your role models carefully.”
“Watching Michael Jordan will help you get better.”
“You’re hanging out with the wrong crowd; they’re a bad influence.”
“Don’t watch people doing it wrong… watch the experts!”

We’ve all experienced it. How often have you found yourself sliding into the accent of those around you? Spend a month in England and even a California valley girl sounds different. Spend a week in Texas and even a native New Yorker starts slowing down his speech. How often have you found yourself laughing, dressing, skiing like your closest friend? Has someone ever observed that you and a close friend or significant other had similar mannerisms? When I was in junior high school, it was tough for people to tell my best friends and I apart on the phone–we all sounded so much alike that we could fool even our parents.

But the effect of our innate ability and need to imitate goes way past teenage phone tricks. Spend time with a nervous, anxious person and physiological monitoring would most likely show you mimicking the anxiety and nervousness, in ways that affect your brain and body in a concrete, measurable way. Find yourself in a room full of pissed off people and feel the smile slide right off your face. Listen to people complaining endlessly about work, and you’ll find yourself starting to do the same. How many of us have been horrified to suddenly realize that we’ve spent the last half-hour caught up in a gossip session–despite our strong aversion to gossip? The behavior of others we’re around is nearly irresistible.

Why choosing who you work, play and hang out with matters.

When we’re consciously aware and diligent, we can fight this. But the stress of maintaining that conscious struggle against an unconscious, ancient process is a non-stop stressful drain on our mental, emotional, and physical bandwidth. And no, I’m not suggesting that we can’t or should’nt spend time with people who are angry, negative, critical, depressed, gossiping, whatever. Some (including my sister and father) chose professions (nurse practitioner and cop, respectively) that demand it. And some (like my daughter) volunteer to help those who are suffering (in her case, the homeless). Some people don’t want to avoid their more hostile family members. But in those situations–where we choose to be with people who we do not want to mirror–we have to be extremely careful! Nurses, cops, mental health workers, EMTs, social workers, red cross volunteers, fire fighters, psychiatrists, oncologists, etc. are often at a higher risk (in some cases, WAY higher) for burnout, alcoholism, divorce, stress, or depression unless they take specific steps to avoid getting too sucked in to be effective.

So, when Robert says he wants to spend time hanging around “happy people” and keeping his distance from “deeply unhappy” people, he’s keeping his brain from making–over the long term–negative structural and chemical changes. Regarding the effect of mirror neurons and emotional contagion on personal performance, neurologist Richard Restak offers this advice:

“If you want to accomplish something that demands determination and endurance, try to surround yourself with people possessing these qualities. And try to limit the time you spend with people given to pessimism and expressions of futility. Unfortunately, negative emotions exert a more powerful effect in social situations than positive ones, thanks to the phenomena of emotional contagion.”

This sounds harsh, and it is, but it’s his recommendation based on the facts as the neuroscientists interpret them today. This is not new age self-help–it’s simply the way brains work.

Emotional Contagion explained.

Steven Stosny, an expert on road rage, is quoted in Restak’s book:

“Anger and resentment are thet most contagious of emotions,” according to Stonsy. “If you are near a resentful or angry person, you are more prone to become resentful or angry yourself. If one driver engages in angry gestures and takes on the facial expressions of hostility, surrounding drivers will unconsciously imitate the behavior–resulting in an escalation of anger and resentment in all of the drivers. Added to this, the drivers are now more easily startled as a result of the outpouring of adrenaline accompanying their anger. The result is a temper tantrum that can easily escalate into road rage.”

From a paper on Memetics and Social Contagion,

“…social scientific research has largely confirmed the thesis that affect, attitudes, beliefs and behavior can indeed spread through populations as if they were somehow infectious. Simple exposure sometimes appears to be a sufficient condition for social transmission to occur. This is the social contagion thesis; that sociocultural phenomena can spread through, and leap between, populations more like outbreaks of measles or chicken pox than through a process of rational choice.”

Emotional contagion is considered one of the primary drivers of group/mob behavior, and the recent work on “mirror neurons” helps explain the underlying cause. But it’s not just about groups. From a Cambridge University Press book:

“When we are talking to someone who is depressed it may make us feel depressed, whereas if we talk to someone who is feeling self-confident and buoyant we are likely to feel good about ourselves. This phenomenon, known as emotional contagion, is identified here, and compelling evidence for its affect is offered from a variety of disciplines – social and developmental psychology, history, cross-cultural psychology, experimental psychology, and psychopathology.”

[For a business management perspective, see the Yale School of Management paper titled The Ripple Effect: Emotional Contagion In Groups]

Can any of us honestly say we haven’t experienced emotional contagion? Even if we ourselves haven’t felt our energy drain from being around a perpetually negative person, we’ve watched it happen to someone we care about. We’ve noticed a change in ourselves or our loved ones based on who we/they spend time with. We’ve all known at least one person who really did seem able to “light up the room with their smile,” or another who could “kill the mood” without saying a word. We’ve all found ourselves drawn to some people and not others, based on how we felt around them, in ways we weren’t able to articulate.

Happy People are better able to think logically

Neuroscience has made a long, intense study of the brain’s fear system–one of the oldest, most primitive parts of our brain. Anger and negativity usually stem from the anxiety and/or fear response in the brain, and one thing we know for sure–when the brain thinks its about to be eaten or smashed by a giant boulder, there’s no time to stop and think! In many ways, fear/anger and the ability to think rationally and logically are almost mutually exclusive. Those who stopped to weigh the pros and cons of a flight-or-fight decision were eaten, and didn’t pass on their afraid-yet-thoughtful genes.

Happines is associated most heavily with the left (i.e. logical) side of the brain, while anger is associated with the right (emotional, non-logical) side of the brain. From a Society for Neuroscience article on Bliss and the Brain:

“Furthermore, studies suggest that certain people’s ability to see life through rose-colored glasses links to a heightened left-sided brain function. A scrutiny of brain activity indicates that individuals with natural positive dispositions have trumped up activity in the left prefrontal cortex compared with their more negative counterparts. “

In other words, happy people are better able to think logically.

And apparently happier = healthier:

“Evidence suggests that the left-siders may better handle stressful events on a biological level. For example, studies show that they have a higher function of cells that help defend the body, known as natural killer cells, compared with individuals who have greater right side activity. Left-sided students who face a stressful exam have a smaller drop in their killer cells than right-siders. Other research indicates that generally left-siders may have lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.”

And while we’re dispelling the Happy=Vacuous myth, let’s look at a couple more misperceptions:

“Happy people aren’t critical.”
“Happy people don’t get angry.”
“Happy people are obedient.”
“Happy people can’t be a disruptive force for change.”

So can Happy and criticism live happily together?

One of the world’s leading experts in the art of happiness is the Dalai Lama, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. Just about everyone who hears him speak is struck by how, well, happy he is. How he can describe–with laughter–some of the most traumatizing events of his past. Talk about perspective

But he is quite outspoken with his criticism of China. The thing is, he doesn’t believe that criticism requires anger, or that being happy means you can’t be a disruptive influence for good. On happiness, he has this to say:

“The fact that there is always a positive side to life is the one thing that gives me a lot of happiness. This world is not perfect. There are problems. But things like happiness and unhappiness are relative. Realizing this gives you hope.”

And among the “happy people”, there’s Mahatma Gandhi, a force for change that included non-violent but oh-most-definitely-disobedient behavior. A few of my favorite Gandhi quotes:

In a gentle way, you can shake the world.

It has always been a mystery to me how men can feel themselves honoured by the humiliation of their fellow beings.

The argument for and against anger

But then there’s the argument that says “anger” is morally (and intellectually) superior to “happy”. The American Psychological Association has this to say on anger:

“People who are easily angered generally have what some psychologists call a low tolerance for frustration, meaning simply that they feel that they should not have to be subjected to frustration, inconvenience, or annoyance. They can’t take things in stride, and they’re particularly infuriated if the situation seems somehow unjust: for example, being corrected for a minor mistake.”

Of course it’s still a myth that “happy people” don’t get angry. Of course they do. Anger is often an appropriate response. But there’s a Grand Canyon between a happy-person-who-gets-angry and an unhappy-angry-person. So yes, we get angry. Happiness is not our only emotion, it is simply the outlook we have chosen to cultivate because it is usually the most effective, thoughtful, healthy, and productive.

And there’s this one we hear most often, especially in reference to comment moderation–“if you can’t say whatever the hell you want to express your anger, you can’t be authentic and honest.” While that may be true, here’s what the psychologists say:

“Psychologists now say that this is a dangerous myth. Some people use this theory as a license to hurt others. Research has found that “letting it rip” with anger actually escalates anger and aggression and does nothing to help you (or the person you’re angry with) resolve the situation.

It’s best to find out what it is that triggers your anger, and then to develop strategies to keep those triggers from tipping you over the edge.”

And finally, another Ghandi quote:

“Be the change that you want to see in the world.”

If the scientists are right, I might also add,

Be around the change you want to see in the world.

Strong organizations and communities are able to harness the power of emotional contagion to create engaging, productive and extremely effective collaborative ecosystems. The truly exceptional among them also manage to extend this collective positivity to their human/customer touchpoints (retail outlets, salespeople, CSRs, etc.). Obvious examples of this are Starbucks (except in airports), Mac Stores, and Whole Foods grocery outlets.

This week, a very large scale example of this (and the trigger for this post) was Microsoft’s Worldwide Partner Conference in Houston, TX.

The complete opposite of this might be, say, the checkout at Walmart, Home Depot or Taco Bell, a prison ward, or an Vietnamese sweat shop.

Success breeds success. Enthusiasm breeds enthusiasm. Professionalism breeds professionalism.

Likewise, mediocrity breeds mediocrity. Apathy breeds apathy. Negative attitudes breed negative attitudes.

Now you know. What you do with this knowledge is up to you. For me, the choice is pretty simple. Always has been.

Have a great Friday. 😉

photo credit: Christopher Wray McCann

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“Bureaucracy defends the status quo long past the time when the quo has lost its status.”
– Laurence J. Peter

Overheard outside the wire today:

“Best is not good enough. You have to be better.”

Personally, I would be happy with being the best (it would be a good start)… but I guess I can respect the sentiment: Don’t rest on your laurels. Don’t ever believe that just because you’re #1, you can chill and stop working as hard. There are always improvements to make – and if you feel that there are no improvements left to make, then you aren’t looking in all the right places.

If anything, I have more respect for “be better than the best” than “give it 200%”. (Hint: There’s only 100%. 100.000001%+ is a fallacy.)

It does kind of remind me of those detergent commercials in the 70’s and 80’s that advertised “whiter than white whites.” (No comment.) I guess it’s all in the eye of the beholder.

Even if you’re the best, there is always someone better, stronger, faster, smarter or hungrier than you just waiting for a chance to take over the top spot. Being the best is not good enough. You have to be better.

Have a great Tuesday, everyone. 🙂

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“Individuals behave in a difficult manner because they have
learned that doing so keeps others off balance and incapable of effective
action. Worst of all, they appear immune to all the usual methods of
communication and persuasion designed to convince or help them change their
ways.”
– Robert Bramson, Ph.D.

I will probably spend the rest of my life trying to figure out why some people are so vehemently opposed to change, progress or new ideas that they will exert more energy fighting them than embracing them.  I am sorry to hear that so many of you are dealing with this. I don’t have a lot of advice to give you there, except this:

Far be it from me to suggest that every new idea and every bit of change is positive. Success, after all, is more often than not the result of countless failures – some calculated, others not. I completely understand how and why intelligent professionals would (and should) be suspicious of new ideas. Due dilligence does play a significant role in effectively adopting new ideas and making them work. No question.

But some people resist change no matter what. These are not people who take the time to analyze a new idea or concept, run scenarios, try to figure out contingencies, look for lateral opportunities, and get around potential pitfalls along the way. These are just difficult people who enjoy being roadblocks.

Perhaps it makes them feel important: If they can’t actually be agents of change, at least they can be agents of un-change.

Maybe it’s all one big ego trip. A passive-aggressive power play.

Maybe it’s just that making sure that things don’t change defaults to predictability in their professional ecosystem , and predictability equals security. The less you change, the less you rock the boat, the safer you are.

Which makes sense when you realize that people who tend to become human roadblocks have made a career out of doing essentially nothing. (Doing something is what their staff is for.) There can only be security in doing nothing when the alternative (doing something) can be sold to senior management as a high-risk, low reward proposition.

Maybe it’s a little bit of everything: Laziness, insecurity, ego. You name it.
One thing is certain: You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Human roadblocks are wired to be the way they are. No amount of logic, enthusiasm or even authority will change them. Or move them, for that matter.
Just like speedbumps, they are there to stay. Just like speedbumps, you have to slow down when you get close to one of them. And just like speedbumps, they’re pretty easy to roll over or get around once you have a clear view of where you want to go.
The thing about human roadblocks is that they don’t go anywhere. Come back in ten years, they’ll still be exactly where they are, doing the same damn thing. Maybe some of you can take some solace in that.
So my advice to you today is this: Don’t go mistaking speedbumps for 500 foot cliffs. They’re just speedbumps. Just keep doing what you are doing, and don’t let anyone stop you from getting the job done.
Have a great Tuesday, everyone.
photo by Christopher Wray-McCann

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“While one hesitates because he feels inferior, the other is busy making mistakes and becoming superior.”
– Henry C. Link
Via the yeti, this fascinating article from the Wall Street Journal:
High-school students here rarely get more than a half-hour of homework a night. They have no school uniforms, no honor societies, no valedictorians, no tardy bells and no classes for the gifted. There is little standardized testing, few parents agonize over college and kids don’t start school until age 7. Yet by one international measure, Finnish teenagers are among the smartest in the world. They earned some of the top scores by 15-year-old students who were tested in 57 countries.
American teens finished among the world’s C students even as U.S. educators piled on more homework, standards and rules. Finnish youth, like their U.S. counterparts, also waste hours online. They dye their hair, love sarcasm and listen to rap and heavy metal. But by ninth grade they’re way ahead in math, science and reading — on track to keeping Finns among the world’s most productive workers.
Finland’s students placed first in science and near the top in math and reading, according to results released late last year. An unofficial tally of Finland’s combined scores puts it in first place overall, says Andreas Schleicher, who directs the OECD’s test, known as the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA. The U.S. placed in the middle of the pack in math and science; its reading scores were tossed because of a glitch.
The academic prowess of Finland’s students has lured educators from more than 50 countries in recent years to learn the country’s secret, including an official from the U.S. Department of Education. What they find is simple but not easy: well-trained teachers and responsible children. Early on, kids do a lot without adults hovering. And teachers create lessons to fit their students. “We don’t have oil or other riches. Knowledge is the thing Finnish people have,” says Hannele Frantsi, a school principal.
(…)
Finnish high-school senior Elina Lamponen spent a year at Colon High School in Colon, Mich., where strict rules didn’t translate into tougher lessons or dedicated students, Ms. Lamponen says. She would ask students whether they did their homework. They would reply: ” ‘Nah. So what’d you do last night?'” she recalls. History tests were often multiple choice. The rare essay question, she says, allowed very little space in which to write. In-class projects were largely “glue this to the poster for an hour,” she says. Her Finnish high school forced Ms. Lamponen, a spiky-haired 19-year-old, to repeat the year when she returned.
Lloyd Kirby, superintendent of Colon Community Schools in southern Michigan, says foreign students are told to ask for extra work if they find classes too easy. He says he is trying to make his schools more rigorous by asking parents to demand more from their children.
(…)
Finland separates students for the last three years of high school based on grades; 53% go to high school and the rest enter vocational school. (All 15-year-old students took the PISA test.) Finland has a high-school dropout rate of about 4% — or 10% at vocational schools — compared with roughly 25% in the U.S., according to their respective education departments.
And all we could come up with was “no child left behind.”
The difference is this: Finns take education seriously. Not just teachers and educators, but citizens. People. Parents. Children. Voters. Education is culturally relevant. Ignorance, in Finland, is not a virtue as it can be here in the US.
I recall my own high school courses being infinitely tougher and more enriching than almost every college course I took in the US. I am a product of both the International Baccalaureate (IB) program and the International School of Brussels’ (ISB) incredible roster of professors, so my experience may not be typical of most Europeans, but let me say this: Only four courses I took in college were above the level of any class I took in High School in Europe. The rest of my college courses were on the level of ninth grade courses at ISB, if that.
I watch my kids go through school and wonder what they learn all day. They’re on par with European schools in math, but not particularly in science… and not at all when it comes to history or literature. Not even close, in fact.
I’ve actually been asked by an American close to me if we had toasters in France. Seriously. (I politely responded that yes, once American GI’s brought electricity with them, toasters and televisions made their way to France fairly quickly – although the government allowed only one of each per village.)
*sigh*
No matter how you look at it, when your own Commander in Chief is hardly capable of putting Nepal, Thailand, Afghanistan or Turkey on a map of the world, when he has a tough time pronouncing simple words like “nuclear” and seems to have a very tough time understanding (and funding) scientific research – and the majority of the country feels an affinity to him because of that “hey, he sounds like one of us” kind of affinity, you can’t help but wonder if we’re committed to being a nation of educated citizens or a nation of proud-to-be-ignorant consumers.
It is one thing to talk about being a world leader, and another completely to be a world leader. Unless we are talking about debt, illiteracy, carbon emissions and military spending.
As a superpower, we really ought to at least try to do better. Out of national pride, if anything. Maybe it;s just me, but we’re starting to look and act a lot like the dumb rich kid who likes to make fun of the nerdy kids in the classroom and shove the ethnic foreign kids into lockers when the teacher isn’t looking.
We really need to start raising the bar in this country. It was cool to be the Chuck Norris loving tobacco-chewin’ country neighbor with the really tacky McMansion and a huge fifteen-car garage and the manicured lawns back in the 80’s, but not anymore. We’ve become a cliche – both overseas and inside our own borders – and that’s never good.
What makes this situation even sadder is this: The only difference between Americans and Finns is mindset. We’ve just become lazy and self-indulgent. We take everything – starting with education – for granted, and have absolutely no clue how far behind we are getting. Honestly, education in the US may be one of those endeavors that Americans may have to outsource. Let an International Baccalaureate team come in with the heads of the world’s top ten national education programs, assess our K-12 system for a year or two, and rebuild it from the ground up.
Maybe this is the only way we get ourselves out of this shameful pit of educational mediocrity.
But before this can happen, our leaders need to have the will to make it happen – which starts with their electorate having the will to make it happen.
Sadly, in a multiple-choice culture in which no child is left behind, in which even the losing team gets a trophy, in which chief business leaders get paid tens of millions of dollars in bonuses for running Fortune 500 companies into the ground, and in which intelligence seems to demand little more than guessing the right answer just over 50% of the time, there is little need to waste time on world history, geography, world languages, literature or critical thinking. In other words, edukashion don’t need to be much gooder than this. If you spell something wrong, Spell Check will correct it for you. If you say something wrong, no one will catch it anyway.
When everyone is dumb, no one is dumb.
Except… when Americans start to travel to places other than Mexico, the Bahamas and the Florida Keys.
Perhaps “good enough” is just that: Good enough. America: Home of the okay, land of the good enough. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound hot to me. Yet here we are. Whether you believe it or not, whether your US-made statistics agree or not, the sad reality is that America’s K-12 system is in shambles, and yes, we are getting our asses handed to us by Finland.
(Case in point: I challenge any one of you – American readers – to actually put Finland on a map. Not scandinavia as a whole, but Finland. Before you do, I also want you to write down what major country Finland shares a border with. I also challenge you to describe its flag.)
Make fun of the French and the Finns and all of those faggy tree-hugging pinko Europeans all you want, but when they’re traveling overseas, at least they can find their own asses on a map without having to google-Earth it.
For shame.
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