Framework for being a Positive Outlier

I recently read Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, by Dr. Atul Gawande. It’s a great book – highly recommended.

In the book the author shares stories of incredible improvement in medicine–from the military, to cystic fibrosis treatment, to surgeons in rural India practicing with few resources.

He closes the book with a framework for being a positive outlier. How do we create dramatic improvement in a crowded field?

Dr. Gawande shares five recommendations:

  • 1. Ask a question. Take the time to open the door to relationships with the people you’re interacting with and serving in your day to day life. Don’t let it take away from your work. Know that not everyone will respond. But you might learn something from those that do, and it will make your your work feel more human and less a part of the normal grind.
  • 2. Don’t complain. I loved how he touched lightly on this recommendation. Everyone complains sometimes, and that’s okay. But if we shift our mind from our troubles to our interests, our lives improve. Here’s his words:

“Wherever doctors gather—in meeting rooms, in conference halls, in hospital cafeterias—the natural pull of conversational gravity is toward the litany of woes all around us. But resist it. It’s boring, it doesn’t solve anything, and it will get you down. You don’t have to be sunny about everything. Just be prepared with something else to discuss: an idea you read about, an interesting problem you came across—even the weather if that’s all you’ve got. See if you can keep the conversation going.”

  • 3. Count Something. In a world of big data, experiments can seem out of reach or too complicated. But we can learn from whatever is going on around us by keeping a tally. Open a notebook or spreadsheet with 2 or 3 columns, keep it somewhere you will come back to, and start a running total.

“If you count something you find interesting, you will learn something interesting.”

  • 4. Write Something. The act of putting words on a page forces you to clarify your thoughts. And sharing your writing lets you join, and contribute to, a world beyond your immediate daily work.

You should not underestimate the effect of your contribution, however modest.

  • 5. Change. Dr. Gawande points out that people react to new ideas by becoming early adopters, late adopters, or by remaining skeptics and never adopting. Early adopters are more likely to be making positive changes in the world.

I particularly appreciated the advice to count and write. I’ve seen in my own life the power of counting or tracking something to help with change. And most of the people I’ve seen make large positive changes in their career did so by writing.

Simple, powerful recommendations.

Thanks for reading!

Well-being Practices I’m Appreciating

I thought today would be a good day to share some mental health well-being practices that are resonating with me this year.

Sunrise in Colorado – some beauty to help with well-being

The Basics: Sleep & Nutrition. In the midst of a busy life, I struggle with both of these. But – a small tweak that has helped is taking supplements to assist. Take melatonin to help with sleep— it is a simple over-the-counter supplement that helps, and the kids version has been a huge blessing with our children.

I’ve noticed that I have a much better mood and less anxiety when I take a multi-vitamin and vitamin D Supplement. There’s a number of research studies linking B and D vitamins to lower anxiety–and I generally notice the difference in myself in a day or two. Bonus – some studies indicate that vitamin D is linked to lower Coronavirus risk.

Count your struggles. Most people know the benefits of gratitude, and how counting your blessings can improve your mood and outlook. But–for me-that often feels forced, and I don’t do it. A piece of advice I received (and am appreciating this year) is to count my worries, struggles, anxieties, and frustrations instead–literally write down index cards, or keep a spreadsheet, of the things you’re worried about. The columns in my spreadsheet (titled “Worry Tracker 2020”) are Date, Worry, What I thought Would Happen, What Did Happen, Was I right or wrong? and Did worrying help?.

I think this has three benefits. First, it gives me an action step for when I’m worried about something -> I can put it in the tracker. Second, it gives me perspective when I come back to the tracker and barely remember the things I used to worry about, or need to fill out the columns on what actually happened and whether worrying helped. Third, I think writing things down helps me plan how I can prepare for or mitigate the consequences of the worries if they happen. Great TED talk on that here.

Read biographies. Charlie Munger famously suggests reading biographies to learn. So this year I made a few attempts, and noticed another benefit–reading biographies give tremendous perspective. Great people in history faced mundane frustrations, seemingly insurmountable obstacles, financial pressure that no one remembers later, and had worries about the future that didn’t pan out. This year I specifically enjoyed the biographies of Ben Franklin (his autobiography, and Isaacson’s biography) and Alexander Hamilton (by Chernow). Note – you don’t have to finish the book to get the benefits; read while you’re enjoying and move on.

On that note, here’s a few examples. In the 36 years from 1865 and 1901, three US presidents were assassinated. Imagine that. That’s much worse than today. I ran across that fact in an article about how Teddy Roosevelt, who became president in 1901, was also shot a few years later on the way to a campaign event. Helps put today’s politics into perspective.

Mindfulness, in the sense of time affluence. Honestly, meditating doesn’t resonate with me, and–even after a few serious attempts–hasn’t taken yet. But – taking some time to slow down does. So take some time to slow down, enjoy a few deep breaths, and appreciate the beauty around you. Fred Rogers had a habit of gently introducing poeple to this, and his commencement address at Dartmoth in 2002 is a great example.

Exercise outside, gently. I’m lucky enough to live about 3 miles from a beautiful lake. But – a 5 mile run is a bit much most days. So some days I walk for parts, particularly by the lake. And it really helps with my sanity.

Being outdoors is known to have positive impacts on anxiety and stress. And, as a bonus, you might run into other people doing things for their mental health. Yesterday I passed two women in lawn chairs on the sidewalk sketching the flowers in their yard. There’s a few regulars I catch whenever I go for a sunrise run, and wave hello. And a few months ago, a paused biker pointed out a few specks on the horizon (“BUCKS not DUCKS”) swimming their way across the lake. Good reminders that the world is bigger than my worries.

I hope these practices encourage you this week. Take care!

One Minute

I came across this poem a few months ago, and I was thinking of it again recently.

I have only just one minute
Only sixty seconds in it.
Forced upon me, can’t refuse it.
Didn’t seek it, didn’t choose it.
But it’s up to me to use it.
I must suffer if I lose it.
Give account if I abuse it.
Just a tiny little minute,
but eternity is in it.

— Dr. Benjamin E. Mays

Though I couldn’t find the exact source, many websites indicate it was written by Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, who lived a pretty fascinating life. He was a long time president of Morehouse College, and was a mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr.

Have a great day!

Blog Update

The four year anniversary of this blog is this month. Always amazes me how the time flies!

I started this blog for two reasons.

First – I wanted a tool for reflection and growth. I’d just finished graduate school and needed a way to keep learning. Writing seemed like the best tool.

Second – I wanted to write on the specific topic of happy, effective work. I am confused that our jobs / careers / vocations — to which we devote so much — are often stressful and unfulfilling. And I felt there was an opportunity through studying this topic to make a positive difference in how people experience their work, starting with myself.

It’s amazing for me to look back at what this project has grown into. I’ve written 110 posts and had my writing read by over one thousand people. I’ve learned more than I expected about myself and others through my own reflection and thinking. I’ve met new people, built new relationships, and had moments of deep encouragement.

All that to say I’ve really enjoyed this project so far.

But I haven’t written much lately. I think there are two reasons.

First – I’ve felt conflicted between the purpose of the site. I started it to be both a personal reflection tool AND a resource for happier work. As a result, I haven’t been very structured or organized about the content I’ve written–so the site is tough to navigate, come back to, and share.

Second – I have trouble committing to being anything–so grouping what I’d like to share into one category, even one as broad as happiness and work, is tough for me. So, when I’m not sure whether it fits, I often don’t share.

So – I’m planning to make a few updates.

  • First – Going forward, this sight will be more focused on tools and insights for happy and effective work. They’ll be grouped into three categories:
    • Effective work practices
    • Happiness & Fulfillment
    • Growth & Change
  • Second – I’ll improve the navigation, so it’s easier to find and come back to tool that are helpful.
  • Third – This site will have less personal reflection unless it’s directly related to happy & effective work. I’m planning to move that to a site with my name, and share updates once per month. When I have that set up, I’ll post an update here if you’d like to subscribe.

Thank you for reading. I continue to find this project to be incredibly gratifying, and I thank you for joining me on it.

Stay encouraged, and have a good week!

Gift, not Gain

It’s been a pretty scary, crazy year…and we’re only to March. In light of that, I wanted share a book I read recently–Living Life Backwards by David Gibson, which is a study of the book of Ecclesiastes.

The idea of Ecclesiastes is that we’re all going to die. Not cheerful, I know. Particularly in the midst of market crashes, a growing pandemic, and crippling fear. But it’s true, nonetheless. So, knowing this, how should we live?

The answer, and the main message of Ecclesiastes, the author proposes, is this:

“Life in God’s world is gift, not gain.”

So – enjoy the journey. Life is messy and complicated, confusing and scary, filled with missed opportunities and derailed plans. But also delicious food and drink, beautiful moments, and (hopefully) the simple joy of the work we find before us.

Gift, not gain. Perhaps not what we would have planned for ourselves, or strictly in line with our goals. Maybe this gift is more inconvenient than we’d expect, or doesn’t feel like our style. Or, perhaps, doesn’t feel like enough. But – despite the problems we might (with enough scrutiny) find on first glance – it is ours to enjoy, and it’s more than any of us have been promised.

The book was recommended a year ago by my dad, and I didn’t pick up until earlier this year, in January–when I was flying to a close friend’s funeral. I found it helpful–in the midst of the grief–to remember this phrase: gift, not gain. The life we’re given is not something we’re entitled to; instead, it’s for us to enjoy.

Here’s a link to the book, and to a great review thread on twitter.

Take care, and enjoy the day!

Responding to Crisis

The coronavirus pandemic arrived in the US over the last few days. This week, both the NBA season and the NCAA Tournament were cancelled. The public school system in Denver and the local university have suspended in-person classes. Financial markets are plummeting. The government banned much international travel.

In the midst of all that, businesses and individuals are trying to decide how to respond. Here are the lessons I’ve learned about responding to crises.

First – Over communicate. Communication is essential, but always a challenge. In every crisis I’ve ever witnessed, the first reports were always wrong. Yet, it becomes more important than ever to communicate well. If you’re leading a team during this time, consider deliberately over communicating–starting with the most basic information–so that your organization knows the essentials of what is happening and how to learn more.

Second – make decisions based on a wise assessment of the future. In Tomas Pueyo’s spectacular post on the spread of the coronavirus, he points out something amazing about the Chinese government’s response: they decided to shut down Wuhan–population of 11M–based on only 400 diagnosed cases, then most of Hubei, with a population of 58M, only two days later. And, at the moment they made those decisions, the true situation was likely an order of magnitude worse than the diagnoses indicated.

I think a wise assessment accounts for three factors.

People downplay bad news – in the midst of crisis, most people’s first thought is to minimize it: “it can’t be this bad.” As a result, most initial reports will sugarcoat the reality of the situation, and make things seem less severe than they are.

Trends tend to continue – things that are unlikely before a crisis starts are still unlikely after. However, when a crisis follows a well-known pattern, it can be straightforward (but daunting) to extrapolate results. For example, in the US, we know that the flu kills 30-80k people each year–by spreading across 30-40M people. We can expect a similarly infectious disease to follow a similar trend.

Action can make a difference – A crisis presents an urgent and important decision.  And–since information in crisis is tough to come by–clear decisions have the opportunity to make a difference and influence others. For example, the NBA suspending their season was a courageous choice–and made every other organization’s decision to cancel a large gathering easier. Don’t underestimate the importance of a courageous action in the midst of crisis.

Third – Remember your values. Crises cause us to reflect and ask if where we’re supposed to be, doing the work we’re meant to do, in the ways that align with our values. If that’s the case, take the time to be grateful and savor the feeling of serving in ways you’re meant to. And, at the same time, use the crisis as a reminder to execute on the simple, important things that get neglected in easier times. Wash your hands, shore up your finances, focus on what matters, don’t overextend.

Fourth – Know that you cannot pour from an empty cup. If you’re in a leadership role, or actively working in the midst of a crisis, remember to take the time to care for yourself. Sleep and eat at normal intervals, even if you don’t want to. Find moments to smile, be grateful, exchange words with colleagues, and find encouragement or rest, even if it seems unnatural–you can’t give unless you take care of yourself first.

Lastly – there will be times for both massive action and patience. I have a vivid memory of Christmas a few years ago, in 2012. I was still in the military, in a staff job in Afghanistan, and I woke on December 25th to a massive rocket attack our base. As the rockets came in, after we had made it to the bomb shelter, all we could do was wait–the preparations done. But – as soon as the flurry of the attack was over, there was suddenly much to do. Both of these things can be true: as you experience the emotions and changes of a crisis, consider which moment you are in, and open yourself to the utility of both.

I wish you the best as we face this coronavirus crisis in our communities and businesses over the coming months. Take care!

Christmas Plans

“It’s all a part of the plan… more or less” – my nephew

Path to the top of a dormant volcano above Calavera Lake in California

I had an amazing Christmas. We took our six-person family to Oceanside, CA. My wife and I ran up a dormant volcano, our kids played in the Ocean, our whole family went to Legoland, and we had a traditional Christmas Eve cheese fondue dinner. It was a great holiday.

There were also some unplanned rough patches. Everyone got the flu. We had rented a 15 person van for our 14 person party, and at some point, at least 3 members of our group vomited in the van. Our 3 year-old and 5 year-old both soaked their clothes in the ocean at a moment when we didn’t have spare outfits, and had to borrow clothes from the adults.

But – the holiday was amazing, and some of the most magical moments were unplanned.

It feels like a pretty common thing to think about detailed plans for Christmas and the New Year. It can even be a big source of stress.

This year, more than any other, I found myself reflecting on how far the first Christmas was from Joseph and Mary’s plans.

I’m old enough to have some idea how upset I would have been, telling my wife we had to walk 95 miles to a different city in her third trimester, because of a government requirement that happened to fall during that month. Or that the plan I had for a hotel wasn’t going to work. Or that we were going to sleep in barn. Oh – and, by the way, the plans I’d made to take care of her during the delivery of her first child had all fallen through. I would have been completely full of panic.

That string of plans falling through is the story we celebrate during Christmas. Because it all worked out, and because the details–unplanned as they were–were an amazing gift.

Anyway – in the midst of the stress of the holidays, or of everyday life, may we remember that the unplanned and difficult moments or unforeseen obstacles are sometimes amazing gifts.

Thanksgiving & Gratitude

Last night I had an unexpected vacation. There was a snowstorm in our neighborhood–12″ of accummulation!–and, just as the kids went to be bed, the power went out. So we had a fire in the fireplace, snow falling outside our windows, and a house of darkness and quiet, save for the crackling and light of the fire. So we laid down by the fire to enjoy the power outage and the calm blanket of snow outside our window.

Photo by Click and Learn Photography on Unsplash

I enjoyed the break from everything else I might have been doing. And, because of the season, it got me thinking about thankfulness.

Here’s what I learned about gratitude this year.

First – it’s an answer to uncertainty. In the midst of change, ambiguity, and fear, gratitude can provide a path forward and a reminder of what is going right.

Second – it pairs well with patience. Often I don’t see gifts immediately when they appear, and it takes time to understand the blessing that an unexpected event or situation really provided. And, when I’m patient, I’m most able to enjoy the surprises that appear in my life.

Lastly – it shows up in unexpected places. So I need to keep my eyes open, or I miss it.

I hope this week finds your life full of gratitude and thanksgiving. Have a great week!

Here are a few words on thanksgiving that I am enjoying this year.

Doodling

Sometimes, when I’m bored, I start doodling in the margins of my notebook.

Recently, I realized I would get a lot of joy from being better at my sketches. Maybe even learning to draw. So I started putting some effort into being organized and a little more focused about these lines in margins.

So – I thought I’d share the most recent output. I hope you enjoy it.

Have a great day!

Memorizing Books

Today I’m marveling that anyone has ever learned to read.

Mastering a difficult skill often consists of the patience and persistence to learn–and master–a relevant set of subcomponents for the whole.

And patience through steady progress is tough.

Reading is a great example. First, you need to learn all the letters and their sounds. Next, how they fit together into words, how each word sounds, and what it means. Then you need to bring the words together into sentences, and follow their meaning through the course of a story.

Taking only the first level–learning the words and their sounds. The average word is 5 letters long, and the average adult reads at 250 words per minute. So, on average, adults can identify a letter, its name, its sound, and its context in a word, at a rate of 20 letters per second. Pretty incredible.

Mastery is built a little at a time. Photo by Teemu Paananen on Unsplash

Two of my kids are 3 and 4 right now. One of the best parts of our day is reading a bedtime story together. They’re old enough to know all their letters and a few of their words, but they’re not reading yet.

Right now, it’s easier for them to memorize entire books than process letters one at a time.

They have memorized dozens of books. They’re really good at it. In fact, they’ll know a new book after only 3 or 4 readings. But – knowing an extra book by memory doesn’t get them any closer to reading on their own.

May we all have patience when we’re mastering new skills–because patience and steady progress are only way to get there.