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When To Remember & When To Forget

Photo by myrr ahn via Flickr

The other day I saw a video online that caught my attention. It showed an eagle flying over the land, as if from the perspective of the eagle. The motion was so real I felt a little seasick.

And a little disturbed. I have had this dream. And I did not want to see it while awake.

Dream-state to waking-state is really a transition from one “total reality” to another. The word “total” means that you’re fully immersed in a situation, physically, psychologically, socially, economically and so on.

For many people, a kind of amnesia kicks in during such a transition:

· From Child to Partner: You bring your fiancĂ©e or significant other home to your parents and have to give them the “I’m not a kid anymore” speech when they act like, yep, you’re their kid.

· From Parent to Chauffeur: You take your kid to the mall to meet friends and they give you the “don’t embarrass me by acting like you know me” look as soon as their friends arrive.

· From Vacation to Real Life: You go on vacation and can’t even believe you have another life somewhere else; conversely, when you get back home it’s like the vacation never even happened, or happened to somebody else.

· From Weekend to Workweek: You get to work on Monday, people ask about your weekend, and you actually have trouble remembering that you had a weekend.

· From Colleague To Stranger: You attend a farewell party for a colleague, and within a couple of days it’s as if they never worked there.

(I also believe that we go through amnesia when we pass from one world to the other – either coming in or leaving).

Other times we try to induce forgetting. We call this “starting again,” for example, choosing a college far away, or leaving town after a painful event in one’s life.

A few weeks ago this happened to me when I changed jobs. I think it’s natural: Rather than try to cobble together the past and the present, which can actually harm your ability to survive (you need to adapt to the new reality quickly), you “forget” so as to fit in right away and succeed.

But then I realized that I should never forget the past. Only stop talking about it:

· Talking about the past = bad: Your current colleagues weren’t there, can’t relate and won’t get the point. They will also get the impression that you’re insulting them.

· Remembering the past = good: Life experience helps you avoid repeating old mistakes. Number one: “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.” Number two: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

In fact, holding on to your memories – in particular, knowing what’s worked and what hasn’t in a particular workplace – is a critical source of competitive advantage. Because nobody can get inside your head to find out what you’ve seen, learned and are using to your advantage.

Wake up and observe instead of zoning out.

In particular:

· Similar challenges from one place to the next: The particulars of a place may be different, but the issues are always the same – strategic thinking and alignment, identifying and prioritizing stakeholder groups, executive communication, metrics, technology, project management, budgeting, bureaucracy, morale, and so on.

· Similar successes: What actions have worked in previous places? How did they actually implement a new and better process for getting work done? How did senior executives decide to finally implement an employee feedback tool? What technology tools made it possible to go from idea to practice?

· Similar rewards for you: What roles have you gravitated toward that has resulted in positive recognition? What have people said about you, that maybe you didn’t realize about yourself? What skills do you take for granted that others find hard to carry out? What has gotten you into trouble in the past, but you were stubborn about it and it ultimately worked to your advantage?

Note that I’m not advocating mindlessly repeating your own bad patterns or roles in the group. Doing so (also known as “acting out” is destructive) even if it wins you a temporary reward. Rather, you want to find the gold in your own personality – where you’ve made the workplace shine brighter – and the ways that former cultures have burnished what shines brightly in you.

Secondarily you can draw on all the other good sources of information: What you learned, what you read, what others told you, feedback from your loved ones and colleagues.

Don’t let yourself get cultural amnesia – keep all those lessons you’ve accumulated in your head. The ones you’ll never find in any blog.

* All opinions my own.

A Completely New Way To Maximize Your Personal Brand

Image of Arthur Ashe quote via BrainyQuote

Today I was inspired by an audio lecture, "Defining One's Role In Life," by Rabbi Akiva Tatz. 

Essentially Tatz offers a simple methodology for managing the classic dilemma, "What am I supposed to do with my life?


"What is my personal brand?"

Ask any college student or midlifer in transition. What should be a wonderful journey of exploration can quickly start to feel like a miserable muddle. On the one side options and ambitions, on the other pressures and constraints.

A lot is riding on how you define yourself.

  • Success brings connection to your life's work, a sense of meaning and general fulfillment.
  • Failure costs time, money, disruption, frustration, not to mention fractured relationships.

So here's the thing that's new.

Most self-help advice opines that you can constantly and eternally change I'm the hope of "finding yourself."

Yet continually starting from scratch is exhausting and unnecessary.

Using Tatz's method, you divide your quest into two phases:

  1. Self-discovery
  2. Maximizing your potential

In practice this means completing a simple but extraordinarily agonizing exercise:

Part I. Draw It

Normally we know our natural gifts by the time we reach adulthood. But knowing yourself is hard. You might need the help of a friend who really knows you.

  1. Ink a circle
  2. Inside the circle write down your skills
  3. Outside the circle wrote down your weaknesses
  4. Keep going even when you feel like you are wasting your time or humiliated
  5. Stop when you feel the a-ha -- a strong sense of "personal recognition."

Part II. Stick To It

Tatz compares your natural skills and abilities to a toolbox. He explains that you need to know what tools you were born with. That way you can accomplish a very specific role in this world. Therefore:

Don't do anything outside the circle. Maximize everything inside it -- find ways to use those skills.

When you truly know your abilities it is impossible to be jealous of others, he says, and I think this is true. You also have no motivation to chase the wrong path.

(The alternative is starting from scratch over and over, which many people do as part of "personal reinvention.")

All of this flies in the face of conventional wisdom, which tells you to be something you are not in order to succeed.

But being yourself is better. While people can theoretically adapt to changing circumstances, at the end of the day we also are who we are.

A person thrives -- at work and at home -- when they are simply allowed to be themselves.
* All opinions my own.

5 Characteristics Of The Mature Leader

So now I'm watching Season 2 of Homeland on Amazon Instant Video (well worth the investment). Briefly, the show demonstrates how one genius-like, incredibly dedicated CIA agent (Carrie) supported by her mentor (Saul) and an establishment leader (Estes) team up to stop a devastating terrorist attack on the United States.

By Episode 5 I realized that the most interesting character from a leadership perspective is not Carrie, the one who saves the day, everyone's favorite. ("Hey, she breaks the rules!" "Hey, she's brilliant.")

It's Saul.

People tend to focus on Carrie the way they focused on Jack Bauer in the similar TV series 24. Where the bureaucracy failed, the heroine or hero steps in. Instead of dialing 911, so to speak, they smash the glass and save the victim's life.

In the real world we cannot depend on Superman or Superwoman, but need mature leaders instead. Here are 5 things they do as represented by the character Saul. All of them have to do with a lack of ego and a total focus on results through people.

1) They mentor talent rather than promoting themselves

The immature leader counts on himself or herself. The mature leader looks to others. The actor who plays Saul, Mandy Patinkin, did an interview in which he explained that Saul's entire motivation is to help Carrie succeed, because she is the future. He has accurately discerned that her talent is to stop the attack while having compassion for people.

2) They manage difficult people effectively

In Episode 3 Saul is detained, provoked, and his diplomatic suitcase broken into by a Lebanese official. Rather than take it personally, Saul talks to the official about the consequences if he breaks the bag. I thought that was smart, but Saul is even smarter than that -- he had already concealed and retained a copy of the item that the official stole.

Similarly, he gets Estes to do what he wants by saying, in effect, "You'll look good if you agree and what will they say if you don't?"

And when Carrie deludes herself he looks her straight in the eye and says, "You are the smartest and the dumbest f***ing person I've ever known!"

3) They put themselves at personal risk

Mature leaders do not practice CYA (cover your a**). They get out into the field. Saul goes into Beirut, he doesn't stay in Washington DC. He gets a lead and pursues it, even though he knows the lead may be a terrorist and even though he knows he will be followed and possibly detained. The danger is particularly great because Saul is not only CIA, but a Jew as was called out by the official in Beirut.

4) They know when to stop

Carrie runs into the burning fire. Invariably in the show that works. But it doesn't work all the time. Saul knows when to stop the operation, get back into the car, walk away. At one point he and Carrie argue because she met a contact without him. She questions whether he trusts her and he says, it's about knowing that I don't have to trust you, because I could verify the information and report it up the chain.

5) They are fully committed

Saul understands the level of commitment the CIA requires. He loves his wife, but he understands when she leaves because he has no time for her. He values Carrie, but knows that when she's too ill to work she has to leave. The confrontation between Saul and Carrie that takes place in Season 2 is in fact about the fact that Saul has chosen CIA as a life, while Carrie doesn't want to end up "alone like him." Unfortunately, leadership can mean making that sacrifice and there is never a moment when Saul is not "all-in."

* All opinions my own.