Every Which Way Is Right

It wasn’t a bitter argument.  We’d known each other far too long for there to be rancor.

It was more of a spirited disagreement.  It was the place really that made the conversation unpleasant.

The wind blew a constant thirty.  The gusts drove the rain and sleet up underneath our jackets. We were soaked and shivering.

Hunkered between two rocks, we debated which way to go.  Sam said the route went east.  I was sure it went west.

We had climbed the Armadillo Buttress on Mt. Katahdin, a stunningly beautiful 5.8 ridge rising 1000 feet above the glacial cirque at Chimney Pond.   What had begun as a picture perfect late fall day had taken a nasty turn as we had ascended into the clouds, the dense fog and rime ice leaving us feeling a bit unhinged.

The Buttress joins the Knife Edge between Baxter Peak and Pamola Peak.  We knew that we had topped out.  We just couldn’t quite figure out which direction we needed to go to get down.

Sam said left.  I said right.

After nearly 20 minutes of “spirited” dialogue, a lone figure appeared in the mist. Another climber. One who knew.

Turns out, either direction would have worked.  Both ways were “right.”

A truth in so many of our Journeys.

We struggle so to get it “right.” And so often, it really doesn’t matter.

As our youngest, a high school junior, approaches the threshold of the college process, I watch as the seniors (and their parents!) struggle with where to go. Where’s the “right” place to spend the next four years? What’s the “right” choice?

Turns out, it doesn’t really matter.

My oldest refused to go to college.  Ten years later, she’s finishing her freshman year with a near perfect GPA.  Her brother went to two colleges in six years. Tenaciously striving to succeed after nearly flunking out, he was just hired in one of the toughest job markets in history as a project engineer.  Their father made all the wrong choices and went to three colleges in four years. Seems he got into a decent graduate program though.  And turned out ok.

There’s no “right” path.  There’s no wrong way.

Every path will get us there.  Each with its own obstacles and challenges.  Each with its own opportunities and majesty and beauty.

I am reminded of the scene early on in the old classic The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy comes to a fork in the road.  She’s not sure which fork to take to get to the Emerald City.  She asks the Scarecrow who points her in one direction.  Then immediately points her in the other direction. And then crosses his arms and points her in both directions.

She finds her way to Oz.  Most of us do.

But we are all so inculcated with the notion that there is only one right way; and so filled with fear that we will chose wrong.

What if we embraced that every path was our path?  What if we believed that we couldn’t make a wrong choice?  What it we trusted that no experience was wasted?

How freeing that would be.

Susan Jeffers says it this way:  “Start thinking about yourself as a lifetime student at a large university.  Your curriculum is your total relationship with the world you live in, from the moment you’re born to the moment you die.  Each experience is a valuable lesson to be learned. If you chose Path A, you will learn one set of lessons. If you chose Path B, you will learn a different set of lessons.  Geology or geometry – just a different teacher and different books to read, different homework to do, different exams to take. It doesn’t really matter… . ”

There is opportunity to grow, to learn, to love, to experience, to find joy, regardless of the path we chose.

And if we don’t like the path, we get to change it.  We can always correct our route finding along the way.

I was fascinated to learn that an airplane flying thousands of miles to a distant destination can be off course 90 percent of the time and still arrive in the right place and on time guided by its internal inertial guidance system. Through constant course correction.

We all have an inertial guidance system.

Every path is an adventure. Every which way is right.

What’s Your POA?

“What’s your POA?” her husband asked.

My sister was annoyed.  She didn’t have one.

There is a Buddhist story about a man on a horse.  As the man rides past his friend who is standing on the side of the road, the friend yells, “Where are you going?” The rider turns toward his friend and yells, “I don’t know, ask the horse!”

The legendary Jim Rohn was fond of saying, “If you don’t start making plans of your own, you’re always going to fit into someone else’s plans.”

POA.  Plan of Action.  Pretty important for Journeys of all sorts.

The plan is the first step.  And it’s not just an idea. Ann and I love ideas.  We can get lost for weeks in our ideas. A plan is something different.  It is an idea that has been shaped and refined into an objective, a goal.

Andrew Carnegie said, “If you want to be happy, set a goal that commands your thoughts, liberates your energy and inspires your hopes.”

But even more than that, a plan is like a road map.  It tells you how you’re going to get to your goal. And when.  A plan is something that will guide you step by step along the way.  And remind you when you lose sight of what you want to achieve.

“Most of us do not “sculpt” our lives,” says Susan Jeffers.  “We accept what comes our way…then we gripe about it.”

We have the power to sculpt our lives.  We have choices. We can make clear plans.

I sat for hours in front of my computer before we went to the Andes in January pouring over my maps and entering dozens of GPS coordinates.  I charted out where we were going to be on any given day, where we were going next, how many kilometers we’d hike, and how long it would take us.  With the GPS, we’d know for sure that we were on course and when we’d reach our goal.

That’s a plan.

Now here’s the tricky part: Action.

It was warm in front of my computer.  It wasn’t particularly so in the Andes. But to implement the plan, we actually had to tie on the boots, lift the heavy loads.  And start walking.  Yup. Action.

There’s an old story that goes something like this: Once there was a man whose home sat by a river.  For days it rained and the river rose up surrounding the house. A neighbor rowed a boat up to the front door and asked the man if he would like a ride to safety.  The man declined. “God will provide,” the man said. Well the rains kept coming and the river kept rising. Soon the river was up to the second floor of the house. A power boat from the National Guard came along and offered to rescue the man. The man declined. “God will provide,” he said.  As the river kept rising, the man was forced to the roof of the house.  A helicopter hovered overhead.  The pilot shouted down to the man offering him a ride to safety.  You know what happened. The man declined.  “God will provide,”  he said.  Well, of course, the man drowned. He appeared at the gates of heaven.  Rather annoyed, he confronted his Maker.  “I trusted in you God.  I thought you would provide.”  God replied, “I sent you a row boat, a power boat and a helicopter. What more did you want?”

Action is required.

Without action, a plan is useless. Without action, we drown in a river of empty ideas.

To succeed, take massive action, Tony Robbins says.  “All manner of good things begin to flow in your direction once you begin to take action,” says Jack Canfield.  English author John Ruskin says, “What we think or what we know or what we believe is, in the end, of little consequence. The only consequence is what we do.”

Every runner knows that the first step out the door is the most difficult one.  And going to the gym is the hardest part of the workout.

POAs are essential in just about everything we do.  Without them, we lose focus at work.  We get lost in the mountains.  We fall over the edge.

We even need them for our days “off.”  Otherwise, we end up wandering about, wondering where our time “went.”

Of course, like most things in life, there’s a bind.

Action without a plan gets us nowhere.  Action for the sake of action depletes us.   Ann and I get caught up in frenzies of activity sometimes and come to the end of the day feeling like burned out husks. We can get so focused on “getting things done” that we lose sight of why we’re doing them, or even whether there is a why.

The Plan.  And the Action. Both are necessary.

And most of all the Balance between the two.

You can’t cross a sea by merely staring into the water. — Rabindranath Tagore

Be A Selfish Bastard

“You’re a selfish bastard.”

The teenager said.  With a fair amount of animation.  And I think a hand gesture.

We were going out on our run.  And had refused to capitulate to the request for transport to some random destination of perceived import.  Or perhaps the destination had some import. And yet we still refused.

“Asshole,”  muttered the teen as it turned on its heels.

We continued to stretch.

The run is something we don’t mess with.  It’s ours.  It’s for us.  We hold that time sacred.  For ourselves.

Selfish?  Absolutely.  Essentially so.

Remember the schpeel that the flight attendants give just before you take off?  About what happens if there is a sudden change in the cabin pressure?  The oxygen mask drops down from the ceiling.  You’re supposed to extend the tubing and place the mask over your face.  And you’re supposed to put your’s on first before you help anyone else, even your children!

Why is this so?

Because your useless if you’re blacked out on the cabin floor.

There are certain things I do every day.  For me. I write. I meditate. I run. I go to the gym.

I do these things without fail.  Regardless of whatever other demands there may be.

They are oxygen for me.

We were out at dinner recently with some dear friends.  Their daughter had just been accepted to a number of fine colleges.  They were of similar caliber.  But the tuitions and the financial aid packages varied widely.  They were in the midst of struggling together with what choice to make.  The daughter wanted the most expensive school with the least generous package.  What to do?  Capitulate to the daughter’s “choice?”  Or make a hard decision. There are younger siblings.  And aging parents.  And bills to pay.  And personal goals. And a marriage to be nurtured.

One of my colleagues at the firm struggles with her older teens who can’t quite launch. They turn to her repeatedly for resources, money and transportation. She’s a good mom.  And wants to “do right” by them.  She often gives in, limiting her own resources and precious time.  But what is “doing right?”

Where are the boundaries?

Where is oxygen?

There are no easy or “right” answers.  But each of us needs to discover what nurtures us at our core.  And protect it at all costs.

If we fail, we end up blacked out on the cabin floor.  Useless. Helpless to help the others when they need us most.

There is no valor in self sacrifice. Self sacrifice is the most selfish act of all.

We live in a world so rife with errands and obligations, demands and expectations that if we don’t schedule and hold fast to what we need for ourselves, for our souls, there will be nothing left to give.

Most folks order their priorities like this:  God, family, job, self.  Darren Hardy in this month’s Success magazine says: “This order will eventually cause you to run out of oxygen. You are no good to God, your family, your company or anything/anyone else if you are rundown or you get sick or drop dead of a heart attack. You cannot give what you do not have. If you want to give more, serve more, contribute more, build more, create more, you have to be stronger and more vital, have more stamina and vigor. You need to make you your first priority so that you can give more, be more and do more for others.”

You are like a high performance race car, leadership expert Robin Sharma says in his wonderful fable The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari. You don’t run the car full-out all the time.  You bring it in for pit stops.  Let the engine cool down.  “Saying that you do not have time to improve yourself, whether this means improving your mind or nourishing your spirit, is much like saying you do not have time to stop for gas because you are too busy driving.  Eventually it will catch up with you.”  You will run out of gas.

The late great Jim Rohn said it so well:  “You take care of you for me, and I will take care of me for you.”

Sharma, in his new book The Leader Who Had No Title, says “to be a great leader, first become a great person.”  “Do the inner work required to make your character richer, your intentions purer, and your acts bigger.  Train hard to get your health into high gear so that each day you are full of energy and radiant in vitality.”

To lead well is to love yourself first.

Find what is oxygen for you.  And hold it dear.

The Sharp End

“You’re on belay, dad.”

I double checked my harness and my knot.  And started out on the long traverse.

The Teton air was cool and dry.  But the rock was still damp from the rare morning thunder storm that we had narrowly averted.

I glanced down beneath my feet at the talus some 1200 feet below – and momentarily my head swooned.  Regaining my concentration, I worked my way along the narrow ledge. And soon I was anchored in and secure.

“Off belay,” I yelled into the wind.  My seventeen year old quickly dissembled the anchor and easily dispatched the traverse.

He’ll be wanting to lead – he’ll be wanting the sharp end soon, I thought.

Who leads?  And who follows?  Interesting questions, I think.

I like to lead.  I’m most comfortable on ice.  I like the puzzle of rock as well.  But most of all, I love the intricacies of a long alpine expedition.  There the logistics and demands of environment and team are the most challenging.  There the stakes are highest.

Not everyone likes to lead though.  I have been thinking about this a lot lately as I have been interviewing applicants for a position in our firm.  There are lots of folks who prefer to follow, who don’t want the “stuff” that comes with being on the sharp end – business development, the insurance premiums, the responsibility for payroll.

I get that.  There have been plenty of days when the ice has been brittle and the protection marginal and the run-out way too long; there have been many cold mornings when the thought of climbing out of my bag to light the stove yet again has left me thinking about a Caribbean cruise.  And there have been more days than I can count when the requirements of running a business – from the choice of toner cartridges to the choice of who argues a case before the Supreme Court – have left me pining for the comfort and solitude of my tent.

But it’s on the sharp end where things happen.  It’s on the sharp end where life is lived most vitally and intensely.

I’ve been reading Robin Sharma’s fabulous new book The Leader Who Had No Title. The premise of the book is that everyone can lead. In fact, according to Sharma, everyone must lead to attain their highest potential.  Regardless of  role or job or position, leading matters. Leading is essential. Yes, even for my seventeen year old.

“I believe that the single best move any organization can make – whether the organization is a business or a not-for-profit or a government or school or even a nation – is growing the leadership potential of every single one of its constituents. Leadership is not only the most powerful competitive advantage for companies – it really is the ultimate tool of our current age to apply if we want to build a better world,”  Sharma says.

Powerful stuff.

But not impossible stuff. Folks aren’t born leaders, according to Sharma.  It is a learned skill.  We need to practice it in every area of our life.  And it starts close to home.  “You cannot lead others until you have first learned to lead yourself,” he says.

I’ve just finished Nick Kristof’s new book Half The Sky, a brilliant and staggering account of human trafficking and gender discrimination.  I’ll write about it one of these days.  But one of Kristoff’s take home messages is the importance of empowerment.

Mary Robinson, Ireland’s former prime minister, now U.N. high commissioner for human rights, speaks of people – women in particular – who are suffering in poverty in places like Darfur and Chad. And the significance of using leadership to empower, to change people’s lives.

Leadership changes lives.

And as leaders, we change lives by becoming the change we want to see.

I like to climb with strong leaders.  And to be sure, I won’t be hiring a follower.

The sharp end is scary. But it beats the alternatives.

The Other F* Word

My mother kept a bar of brown soap next to the kitchen sink.  And she’d use it if any one of us uttered a profanity.

So it’s with great trepidation that I dare to write about the other four-letter F* word.

Fail.

There.  I said it.

Growing up, it was an unmentionable word.  An inconceivable concept.  Failing wasn’t an option.  In school. In sports.  In life. In anything.  Anywhere.  Anytime.

It was expected that we would succeed at everything we did.

I understand the reason why.  In most professions, including mine, it’s poor style to say, “Oops, failed again.  At least we tried.”  It can get one sued.  Or worse.

The problem with avoiding failure, though, is that it leads to mediocrity.  And stagnation.

William Gladstone, a former prime minister of Great Britain said, “No man ever became great or good except through many and great mistakes.”

“Many people fail to take action because they’re afraid to fail,” says Jack Canfield in his book The Success Principals.  “Successful people, on the other hand, realize that failure is an important part of the learning process.”

It is said that when Thomas Edison was endeavoring to invent the light bulb, he tried more than 10,000 different approaches.  When asked about these “failures,” Edison replied, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”  “I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward”, he said.

“Your next level of excellence is hidden behind your next level of resistance,” says leadership guru Robin Sharma in his new book The Leader Who Had No Title. According to Sharma, “You really don’t grow unless you move toward your areas of discomfort.”  And fail.

Darren Hardy, the publisher and editorial director of Success magazine, recalls a time in his youth when he told his father about a day on the ski slope.  “I didn’t fall once,” he said proudly. His father replied, “Then you didn’t get any better.”

What a wonderful way to look at failure.  

My friend Bob is a very successful business man.  He was raised with a completely different paradigm than mine.  Failure for him growing up was not something to be avoided. It was a way to discover what works.  

“Mistakes are just opportunities for learning something new,” says Canfield.

I can see how that idea has played out in Bob’s life.  Even in the throws of a very difficult business environment, Bob is not afraid to push the edges of what is possible. He is not afraid to fail.

Intuitively, I know this.  There have been times that I’ve avoided a difficult climb because I “knew” I’d fall.  Of course, it’s tough to learn much like that. In falling, I discover what doesn’t work.  And what does.  I get stronger. And better.  

In embracing the possibility of failure, we are free to experiment, to play, to create, to grow.

Not only that, but in failing, we also have the capacity to move from the merely good to the truly great.  

Tony Robbins uses the idea of 2 millimeters: the two millimeters that often separates success from failure, the 2 millimeters that separates the excellent from the outstanding, if only we push through our failures.  Edison said, “Many of life’s failures are men who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”  

If we don’t retreat from failure, but learn from it instead, it can catapult us to brilliance.

For me, it’s a constant struggle to embrace failure. I know I’ve made my children neurotic about it. At least I didn’t bring out the soap.

“Fail forward,”  Canfield says.

Use the other F* word!