A Hero’s Journey

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I spoke with my team this week about the hero’s journey, or Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. This was brought up in a leadership program at Mozilla as a tool we could use to understand the different types of journeys we take as leaders and what phase we might be in.

Hero's Journey

There are a few things I wanted to emphasize with the group:

  • Put things in perspective. “The Pit” or “The Abyss” can seem pretty daunting and when you’re in the middle of it, things can seem pretty bleak. However, once you conquer a few, you build confidence and recognition that what you’re facing isn’t the end of the world — that you’ll find a way to work your way through it and make a breakthrough.
  • You need faith. Belief in yourself, your abilities or your cause can sustain you through otherwise dark periods. There’s a reason why you answered “The Call” — just like Luke left Tatooine in Star Wars without really thinking about it. It’s because deep down, even if you are frustrated or tired, you know you can accomplish great things and overcome this challenge.
  • You will need allies. There is no Luke Skywalker without Yoda or Obiwan. Likewise, you won’t be able to move mountains without help from others. Could be your mentor, your god, your friends or your spouse. Either way, it’s important to realize that to make true breakthroughs you need to open up enough to let people help you get to where you need to go. Help can come as feedback, support, listening or many other ways. Remember to look for it and seek it.

Not very useful, but I found it pretty entertaining to deconstruct movies from the 1980s and see how they fit in with (or butchered) the formula. It’s interesting to see how they used montages to breeze through parts of a hero’s journey just because of budgeting or time constraints. You have to admit, though: the training montage from Rocky IV is pretty epic.

Anyway, just wanted to share some of those thoughts.

Aggression doesn’t solve problems

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I’m a bit worried about energy. There’s a karmic quality to what’s going on around us, and I want folks to think about it.

Conan, in his farewell off of NBC, said:

“All I ask of you, especially young people…is one thing. Please don’t be cynical. I hate cynicism — it’s my least favorite quality and it doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen. I’m telling you, amazing things will happen.”

When my grandfather passed away, I clung to this. He was a quiet, unassuming, hardworking Chinese man brought up through some tough times. But he was never a cynic.

I think he had a lot of reasons to lose faith in people in the world around him. World War II, internment camps, segregation, great depression, Vietnam war… the list goes on. I believe we have pretty good lives compared to what he went through. Relatively, we have a lot of positives out there to write about.

So when it comes to net energy exchange, I don’t want to see what amounts to a few assholes trying to push people’s buttons and troll turn us into cynics. To live that way — to perpetuate that mindset — is counter-productive at best, self destructive at worst.

Because of karma, entropy, net energy, whatever — I personally don’t believe in aggression against aggression as a winning strategy. I find a lot of the language online to be rather aggressive, particularly toward competing viewpoints. This does everyone a disservice and drains energy from you, the other person, and people who reads this content.

And to what end? Do people become so drained that they quit? Is it about catharsis? Are people so shocked and awed at someone’s outrage that they change their mentality? When is the last time you yelled so loud that everyone just up and changed?

Never.

I think there are positive aspects to participation, and I agree with embracing what we feel and speaking up — but I don’t think the angry, rage-against-the-machine approach works for the disaffected. I liken this dichotomy to positive reinforcement vs. punishment.

The key there is it’s not either-or. You need both. In this give and take of energy I don’t believe you can have all the punitive language, the call-to-arms and outrage without the positives getting equal airtime. It’s totally out of balance.

Likewise, as people, I think the material and behavior we contribute to our communities needs balance. If all we’re doing is smacking down people who make mistakes and repeatedly punishing them, well, that has been proven to fail time and again in just about every facet of human society: drugs, prison, childhood development, racism, etc.

Pressure, positivity and time are what changes people. Things like learning, understanding, forgiveness, training and awareness. And not just in small doses – in large, consistent doses. I believe this. So did MLK:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

And here’s the thing: it sucks. People can be assholes; they don’t like to change and they cling to their beliefs. I have a lot of pity for any person who hinges their happiness on how well they can change the people around them.

But remember: not everyone is impossible. Not everyone is against you. Being a cynic is not going to move us ahead.

Codes of conduct, honor, etc. — they have their place and a balance in net energy is what they strive to achieve. A landslide of negativity and churn does not march us towards that vision — it sends us in the opposite direction towards something nobody wants to be a part of.

I’m walking the other way.

“Victory attained by violence is tantamount to a defeat, for it is momentary.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Feedback will make or break you

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“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” – Winston Churchill

Ignoring feedback is a lot like telling lies, except you’re lying to yourself. Once you fib, you inevitably have to make more stuff up to cover for what you already made up — and soon you have an entire house of cards on your hands. When a breeze comes along, it all falls apart. The reality we build for ourselves masks our flaws so we don’t have to confront them. The only problem? Eventually, everybody will know it except you.

Don’t put yourself there. It usually culminates in embarrassment, loneliness, depression and rejection. It takes months, years to dig yourself out of it. Consider that criticism is like pain. Would you ignore an infection? Would you just let it go and convince yourself that you’re totally healthy? Would you risk your physical health in order to support your denial? I hope not.

Why would you do that to your mind?

How do we magically ignore feedback in practice? I’m sure you have better examples, but I’ll give it a shot. Here are some common tactics we use to dismiss feedback:

  • Criticizing tone. If you’re criticizing word choice or how they said it you are deflecting useful feedback. It’s popular in politics for a reason: it’s easy and effective.
  • Dismissal by association. This is similar to “ad hominem” in Graham’s how to disagree. As a knee-jerk reaction you may associate someone’s opinion with their rank, group, background, etc. The next logical step is something along the lines of, “of course they think that, they are just a designer.” This is a mistake. Feedback from orthogonal groups is even more valuable because they see you from a different perspective. Don’t dismiss feedback because someone is not on your team or because you out-rank them. That type of feedback, if ignored, will turn into grapevine chatter and slowly come back to you.
  • Making it about feelings. When someone gives you feedback it’s a very personal thing. However, if your response makes it personal when it doesn’t have to be, you’ve got a problem. Spending all your energy on how you feel about the feedback can prevent you from focusing on what caused the feedback. I think it’s great to let someone know how you feel, but do it carefully. It could shut down future feedback from that person and make you unapproachable. It’s the difference between, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know you felt that way — I feel bad about that and I’ll see what I can do,” and, “I really don’t appreciate what you said and it makes me feel terrible.” If your response is aimed at guilt-tripping the other person, you’re building a nice little wall around yourself and they’ll think twice about being honest with you in the future.
  • Constructing amazing excuses. Just stop with excuses. John Wooden said, “Don’t whine, don’t complain, don’t make excuses.” I don’t reasonably expect someone to never whine or complain, but excuses shift blame and make things not your problem. Chances are that if someone comes to you with feedback, you had something to do with it. I’m sure there are many reasons why the stars aligned and caused xyz, abc to happen — nobody gives a shit. Take responsibility and figure it out. Even if you didn’t have anything to do with it, ask yourself what you can do to help. Send them to the right person, or relay that feedback if necessary. Making excuses is clearly making sure it’s not your fault and taking responsibility for a solution isn’t even admitting fault. The key to remember: only one of those is remembered, and only one of those ends in solutions. If you want to be forgotten, keep on making those excuses.
  • Pulling rank. The “because daddy said so” approach to handling feedback is fairly common. Using rank to settle arguments or avoid confrontation is a slippery slope. If you’re a leader, it’s a good way to sabotage yourself. Your team will not work hard to fulfill your vision just because it’s your vision — you need to make it theirs by inspiring them. Ignoring feedback because of rank or authority says, “I’m too important to listen to that and what you said doesn’t matter.” You better have some credentials or trust to pull it off. If not, good luck with that, bossman.

Once you stop putting up your walls, you have to take some steps forward. Just like dieting, it’s not about eliminating the junk food — you have to exercise and eat good food too. Every once in a while you’ll slip, but for the most part you want balance and stability in how you approach feedback:

  • Fight like you’re right but listen like you’re wrong. John Lilly reminded me multiple times to do this, so let’s call it a Lillyism. It means moxie and listening don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Have guts, resolve and fight hard — but always, always listen and remember you may be wrong.
  • Get a second opinion. Phone a friend, ask your significant other, ping a coworker you trust. “Am I being defensive, or is this totally nuts?” is a decent question to ask about feedback you get that you don’t agree with. I know my wife is happy to tell me if I acted like a goofball and should apologize — and hopefully you’ve got people in your life who would do the same for you. Get help from them; you don’t have to process feedback alone.
  • Get counsel from your enemies. If you want to truly grow, you should know what your worst critic says about you. The best way to do this is ask them. I’ve seen folks avoid getting feedback from people that may not agree or even like them. This is just about the stupidest thing you could do. Avoiding feedback from people because it may not be good is self-defeating. Don’t avoid it, seek it out. Show them that you care to ask and listen — you’ll be surprised at what an impact they can have on your career.
  • Actively ignore things. You’ll get some noise in feedback. Just make sure what you ignore is actively ignored. You don’t have to heed everything people say — but you should listen. Make conscious decisions on what you’re not acting on as a result of feedback. And if you’re worried about the reaction, talk to the person who gave it to you and say, “this is my plan, and I don’t have time to do ____ but I will get to that later.”
  • Say thank you. Saying thanks for the feedback is just the right thing to do. Make an effort to thank people who helped you with their honesty — do what you can to make sure they do it again. People who give you feedback care about you enough to disagree with you and tell you the truth about yourself. Embrace them and value them. Let them know how important it is to you.
  • Ask questions. Your critics are great sounding boards. When you come up with actionable items from your huge list of feedback, ask them if your plan makes sense and whether it’ll address their concerns. This can open up opportunities for collaboration, discussion and at the very least lets them know you’re working on it and you’re listening. In case you didn’t understand feedback, you should do this as well — sometimes it takes effort to get down to the root cause.

Overall, how you handle feedback — and if you pay attention to it all — can define who you become. It all starts with you.

Do you have the courage to take criticism, process it and improve? Most people want to work with someone who answers yes.

Thanks to @lonnen for his feedback on this post!

He’s flippant, but is he right?

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Criticizing tone instead of having rich discussion is a waste of time. In most cases, the time it takes to criticize tone and delivery can be spent arguing the issue at hand.

In a case where someone has the courage to raise their voice and question things publicly:

  • Try not to discourage them from speaking up in the future
  • Focus on what they said, not how they said it
  • Address the issue in your response, always

In Paul Graham’s post about how to disagree, he states:

“So if the worst thing you can say about something is to criticize its tone, you’re not saying much. Is the author flippant, but correct? Better that than grave and wrong. And if the author is incorrect somewhere, say where.”

While it’s not constructive to react and submit knee-jerk comments, it’s just as counter-productive to criticize tone and delivery instead of offering solid reasoning as to why you disagree.

Of course, we can frame things initially in order to not invoke a predictable response to our snarky comments. But outside of insults or out-of-bounds comments (which are usually best ignored), I usually prefer to focus my energy on the problem, not examining words and etiquette.

Be wary of criticizing tone. It’s not as productive as it might feel and won’t do anything to change the end result.

Stalemate: Are you building a culture of silence?

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Courage. Trust. Great teams have these, weak teams don’t.

There is nothing quite so disappointing as a group of talented people who can’t achieve because they lack mutual trust. Likewise, it’s tough to see folks who can’t speak up because they either don’t have the courage or don’t trust their colleagues enough to listen to what they have to say and react constructively.

With dwindling trust or courage, you’re building yourself a culture of silence. This manifests itself in very destructive ways:

  • People do not speak up. Even when it is important for the progress of the team and company, people are reluctant to voice their opinions. It takes individuals with tremendous courage to speak up and when they do, they are labeled as dissenters and not supported even though they are saying what everyone wants to say — but won’t dare.
  • There is no room for failure. Most successes are preceded by wonderful failures. Not having the trust of leadership or colleagues eliminates failure as an option and stifles innovation. If you can’t fail for fear of retribution, you probably aren’t going to succeed at higher levels.
  • Nobody challenges each other. If I think you’ll try to sabotage me or get revenge because I disagree with you, I’m going to be less likely to challenge your points and assumptions. I won’t be vested in your success enough to challenge your core arguments. Healthy discourse goes out the window and those with the loudest voice — or those who speak first — start winning out.
  • Your true talent bleeds. People with better options don’t tolerate a culture of silence. They recognize lack of trust and leave fairly quickly for better opportunities. You often won’t hear about why they really left. It’s always the “opportunity I couldn’t pass up.” As you might suspect, there’s usually more to it than that.
  • Politics run rampant. In an environment where nobody truly knows where people stand, extroverts get a lot of credit and overshadow the silent majority. Politics, defined as, “people advancing their careers or agendas by means other than merit and contribution,” replaces any meritocracy with a bureaucracy. Ben Horowitz wrote a good post about politics.

Here’s how you can prevent building this culture of silence:

  • Listen to people. People who do not listen or practice in selective listening do not trust the speaker enough to consider they may be right. Maybe you’re formulating your response before they are done talking. Maybe they are just totally wrong. Either way, if you start talking immediately after someone makes a point and come back with 10 reasons why they are wrong you are telling them something very clear: I do not trust you and I don’t value your opinion. Don’t do this — just listen.
  • Forget about blame. Blame is a huge waste of time in most cases. Can you recall any time you pointed out it was someone’s else’s fault where working with that person again was easy? If so, congratulations; that might be the first time in human history. Assume the best in your colleagues. Allow them room to fail and help them. It will pay off tenfold in the long run.
  • Sort things out directly without bosses. I can’t recall a time where cc-ing someone’s boss resulted in a positive outcome. Adults tend to work things out directly and when they can’t, they escalate. If you conduct normal business thinking, “if I say something, it could go directly to my boss,” you’re going to say less — or agonize over what to say. Try to work things out with people directly and avoid involving their superiors unless you’ve already tried and didn’t get results. You just might be able to resolve things with less drama and avoid losing trust.
  • Don’t play the victim. Everybody hates you and you’re just trying to do your job, right? I remember hearing stuff like this; I think it came from 6 years olds dealing with their first exposure to groups of other people. It has no place at work. Excuses, blaming others, entertaining all forms of outward influences as plausible scapegoats before addressing what you did or what you could have done differently is a good way to lose people’s trust and confidence in you — it’s also mentally exhausting. If you play the victim and enter meetings like mama bear protecting her cubs, you’re going to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Don’t be a victim. Be strong. People will respect you for it.
  • Avoid character attacks. Maybe you think Jim is a huge asshole. Maybe Mike is crazy and he gets on your nerves. Maybe Jenny said something that hurt your feelings. A good way to screw yourself is to be irresponsible in how you share this internal dialogue. Vent to your friends, your partner, whatever — but keep it clean — always. Word gets around and you don’t want people to hear your internal dialogue. Keep the nasty stuff to yourself. Don’t play that game — everyone loses when it becomes too personal or vindictive.

Organizations lacking trust and courage can generate both noise and silence at inopportune times. Those who get drowned out have a lot to offer; the analytical, the listeners, the silent majority contribute just as much to the long-term health of the organization.

So speak up, be heard, but always listen to others. Trust they are saying things for the right reasons — give them the time they deserve before you hammer their opinions into tiny itty-bitty pieces. After all, their next point may be brilliant. But you’d never know if they lacked the courage to speak in a room full of people ready to pounce.

Laura Bush on Obama

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Holy shit. Talk about a major anomaly in the GOP’s propaganda machine.

Referencing the uproar over Obama’s address to schoolchildren, which will be aired nationwide Tuesday, Laura Bush said it’s “really important for everyone to respect the president of the United States.”

It’s good to see that common sense takes hold once in a while and someone has recognized that the recent disrespect for our president is ridiculous.

Yeah, it’s fine to disagree — of course. But base it on facts and do it respectfully. Don’t shout really loud about stupid shit just to drown out people who aren’t matching up with your ideology. You’re pooping in the pool and muddying public discourse.

Most people can’t handle this. So far our president has been called:

  • Hitler
  • A socialist
  • A terrorist
  • A fascist
  • A communist
  • A racist

And, probably worse than that. And we’ve still got 3 years to go!

Thanks Laura Bush.