Are You A Traveler or a Tourist?

A metaphor for an effective connection with another culture is to compare the process to the difference between a tourist and a traveler.

The tourist takes a flying visit, seeks a home away from home experience by staying in familiar (Western) hotels. Eats recognizable Western food. Learns a few words of the local language. Continually compares the “foreign” destination with all things home. This is a superficial visit. The person never penetrates below the surface of the culture. He/she often comes away from the trip with stereotypes. There is often a sense of alienation. Take the Ugly American newly in a foreign city.  There is a constant litany of woe about the absence of convenience stores on each corner. Where can there be a late-night ménage a trois with Ben and Jerry’s?

The traveler on the other hand has a teachable mindset that says, “What can I learn about this country/people? “What is their history, religion, worldview?” “How can I master their language?” “How can I listen deeply to them”? The attempt here is not just to observe and compare. The traveler, to the extent that it is possible, immerses him/herself by attempting to become that culture. He/she delves into the culture in order to know what it is to be a member of that group. However, there is a knowledge that one can never become a local. This aspiration to identify with the other goes far beyond the superficial attempt to “go native”.  It is not just the adoption of the dress and mannerisms of the other. It is an attempt to make the fullest possible identification.

True cultural connection is not for dabblers and those who cherry pick what pleases them. One wrestles with tough questions, lives with the ambiguity of not knowing, makes peace with the fact that at times there are few definitive answers, embraces mystery, learns that one is forever a student and never an expert, and lives with the desire to get to the soul of a culture.

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Breaking Ego-Mind Addictions – A Reflection on the True Self

The operating system of all regret is the ego-mind. That internal commentary about our self often begins with “What if?”

Such “what if?” moments are centered on individual performance, need for validation, and control. Anyway if we are only as good as our last performance where does that leave us when we fall flat on our face? Looking back each “failure” can become the building block of who we are today. There is a lot of truth in the saying that we become stronger at the points where we are broken. But that is not a conclusion reached by the ego-mind. For it, failure is not an option.

For a moment let’s be quite blunt. We are hooked on ego-fixes. We carry them around on our ship like lifeboats. We simulate drug addicts that keep a secret mental stash of them in case the detox from the ego becomes too difficult. Ego-fixes come in a multitude of forms. How many likes did I get on my blog? What was the size of my audience? How big is the organization that I lead? Did people like what I did on that project? Can I pursue my passion for the joy of the job itself? Beyond that, the ego loves to argue and be right. It can’t stand people who claim “I don’t know”. It is the ultimate “know it all”.

Such life questions often swirl around in our system for years.

Don’t get me wrong. Performance matters. If I am not at the top of my game in my consulting practice I will soon be unemployed. And if I had not been competent in my various professional roles my resume would have big gaps in it. But a great performance is not to be confused with my true self. We are who we are without having to prove it by doing something.

 Since the “What if?’ question comes from a story that I tell myself, that makes me the the author of the ego-mind narrative. And as the author I can edit out these disabling messages that leave me in an ego-intoxicated state. And therein lies the source of much of personal suffering. No amount of achievement satisfies our longing for meaning. Performance is a hamster wheel where we go nowhere fast and always feeling the emptiness of life. I climbed the mountains of achievement (sure I did some good work) and crashed into the valley of despair, death, disease, divorce, downsizing, and depression. Yet through all these vicissitudes, something deep within called me to a place where my true person could be found. 

Answering the call of that true self is about surrender. Just as the addict/alcoholic has to admit to the self and others that he/she is powerless in the face of the substance, so to we have to admit our helplessness in the vice-like grip of the ego-mind. So we surrender in a confession “I can’t, my true self can”. We surrender to a power greater than the ego-self. The beauty is that the true self is there all the time, right in our back garden, closer to us than our breath, complete as it is not needing a 2.0 version.

All these years that true observing self has been watching, whispering, and waiting for me to learn that doing is not being. Like the blue sky is not to be confused with the weather, reactions are not responses and theories created by the mind (what I thought/imagined the answer to be) fall short of the deeper truth about self. The ego-mind is not the soul. And that soul is found in silence and is measured by the quality of our relationships.

We can slowly be transported far beyond all distracting “what if’s?” to a world of “what now?” The new question lifts us above the regrets of the past, fantasies of the future, and brings us solidly into the now. 

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From "What if?" to "What now?"

Breaking the half-mile record in High School

It was one of my iconic scenes over fifty years ago. The episode became a part of the highlight reel played over and over in my mind ad nauseam. The soundtrack is not some dramatic and inspiring Chariots of Fire music. Rather, for years, every memory of the episode was accompanied with a shudder and a groan from my depths crying out “What if?” 

The picture seared in my mind is the ecstasy I experienced at my High School track meet when I broke the record for the half-mile race. 

The agony came two weeks later at the regional track meet. Here I crashed and burned in one of those “could have been a contender” moments. I had just won the long jump competition when I lined up for the start of the half-mile event. At the starter’s gun I surged ahead of the rest of the competition. At the half way mark I was way ahead of everyone with an unprecedented time of 56 seconds.  At that rate I would have broken the national record in well under two minutes. 

But then disaster struck. 

With just under 100 yards to go my leg cramped and I fell to the ground in pain. In agonizing slow motion I staggered to me feet and stumbled towards the finish line. By this time the other runners had caught up to me. My teammate pushed me over the finish line. I was disqualified but the meet officials chose me anyway to be on the National team. What happened? The real reason was that I did not properly warm up for the race. I could not run in the national championship because my leg had been injured more than I thought at the time. For years afterwards I second guessed myself with the thought “If only!”

I have had so many ‘if only’ moments since then. Most were connected to my chief focus, individual performance, need for validation, and control. My whole life I believed the big lie told by my ego-mind that my accomplishments defined my true person. So I asked, “What if I had not fallen in that half mile race and become the national champion?” “Would that have fulfilled my destiny and defined my purpose in life?” Not really.

The problem with my paradigm for living is that my desire for validation through performance became separate from who I really am.

It slowly dawned on me that the “What if?’ question came from a story that I told myself. And that narrative kept me in a continual dreamlike state. That fool’s gold led me to believe that I had the real thing. And therein lay the source of much suffering. No amount of achievement satisfied my longing for meaning. I came to feel like I was on a hamster wheel. I was going nowhere fast and always striving and never satisfied. Yet there was something deep within that called me to a place where my true person could be found. 

That observing self pointed me to a world that was more about being than doing. It was focused on the soul and not the ego. Here I started to realize how to be as alive as possible and transported far beyond all distracting “what if’s?” to a world of “what now?”

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My Dog: My Spiritual Director

Oaxaca and her ball

We have all adopted animals. In life they have delighted our hearts. At their death our hearts were broken. But was the rescue worth it? Every minute was.

I carried the lifeless body of my dog Oaxaca to the vet’s car. He had kindly offered to have her cremated before we returned to the USA. Memories of how she came into our lives flooded back as tears streamed down our faces. Oaxaca was a rescue dog from a small village outside of the city of Oaxaca, Mexico. Many times as we sat having coffee on the village plaza an annoying/humorous local strummed his guitar and sang way off key “Oaxaca, Oaxaca, en mi corazon”. His song was about the city of his birth. To us now it is about the white Labrador mix we adopted. She has wedged herself deep into our hearts. I may have rescued her from her desperate plight on the tough streets of a village in Mexico.  But she rescued me from a life of muted emotions. I have loved before. I had lost animals and people in the past and managed to choke off my feelings of loss. 

But not with this dog. This was different.

We allowed her to worm herself into our lives. Maybe it was that tattered rubber ball that we threw for her and she fetched until our arm hurt from all the throwing. Or it could have been the sideways sorrowful glance she would flash when we stroked her silky fur. She had been neglected on the streets of this desperately poor Mexican village for years. Her teeth were broken and cracked and missing. She had chewed rocks trying to extract substance for her emaciated body. Other more aggressive stray dogs had chased her away from any scraps of food the villagers had thrown out. But we saw her before she saw us. We carried food in the trunk of our car to give her at the noon time hour when she wandered into the village.

Then one day our friend Rebecca called us on our cellphone. White dog had been rescued. She was at the vet’s being spayed, fed, and bathed. Kris started crying. When I asked why she said it was for joy and relief that the dog had been rescued and was now safe.

My next question changed our lives. “Do you want to adopt her?” I asked. More tears and an immediate affirmative answer. The next response was even more surprising and poignant. “I want to name her Oaxaca”. That’s where she came into our lives”.

Oaxaca was with us for the next 18 months. She travelled everywhere on our many road trips.  She always anticipated that there would be a place to stop and run after her ball. We travelled from the beaches of N. California to the shores of Lake Michigan, from the Aztec ruins in Chiapas, Mexico to the trails of Point Reyes National Seashore in California. All the time stopping for the ball throwing routine.

Her final trip was back to Oaxaca where we saidy our final goodbyes. She had terminal cancer. We hoped against hope that it would go into remission but all the signs of her imminent death were at hand. Not eating, not drinking (we fed her with droplets of water from a syringe), the bleeding tumor on her neck becoming bigger and bigger, and lack of energy were signs of her end days. She no longer could jump up into the car. We were heading back to the place where we rescued her. The whole rescue team was there for her last moments. The vet, friends who had an animal rescue ranch, and Kris and myself. We held her in our arms while the vet administered the sedative and then the potion that would end her life. We cried, told her how much we loved her, thanked her for giving us so much love, and finally whispered goodbye as she drew her last breath.

Now, several years later we still mourn her death and celebrate her life. We console ourselves that we gave her a great life for her last 18 months. Above all, I thank her for being one of my greatest spiritual directors. She taught me to come from the heart in deeper ways. Thanks Oaxaca.

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The Search for Community

The consummate joke on humans is that we are social animals in need of others to maintain our wellbeing. However, many times we can’t stand being together. That is not just true of the ornery uncle at Thanksgiving dinner. We also struggle with the best of friends who rub us the wrong way from time to time. As a result we live with constant ambivalence about sustaining our human connections. 

However, there are other reasons we don’t find satisfaction through deeper human bonds. This includes our peripatetic lives. I have resided all over the world in countries like South Africa, Zambia, USA, and Mexico. Friends have come and gone. Since I am not on Facebook I don’t stay in touch with people from my past. In the case of my immediate family I have brother in South Africa and another in Australia, a son on the West coast and one in the Midwest. These geographic challenges preclude closer family ties. I also left my historic religious roots that brought with them close community bonds. Today my cultural differences keep me at an arms length from my village community where the majority of the citizens were immigrants from Spain over four hundred years ago. Here one is not a local unless one’s grandparents are buried in the village cemetery.

Last evening in a group of friends, all in our seventies, we talked of our common longing for community. There was a time in all of our lives when we could recall deep friendship bonds. That remembered ‘gold standard’ never seems replicable since those days were often way back in our college years. But we searched for that connection anyway. And we continued to be disappointed in our current search. Paradise lost never became paradise regained. 

My deepest friendship bonds were in my twenties and thirties where factors like parenting, graduate school, and sporting activities bound my life with that of others. But this entire web of relationships fell apart when I graduated, migrated to the USA, and got divorced. 

A few weeks ago one of wife’s friends asked me “Do you have friends in whom you can confide?“ I had to confess that this is not fully found in one person. Maybe this is due to my being male. Kris my wife has no problem forming close bonds of friendship with other women. I envy this “female” capacity to bond. However, I am not inclined to use my maleness as an excuse for my not currently having close ties.

I realize that my lack of deep connection stems from a number of factors. As a child I learned to be self-sufficient. As a male I am less inclined to form deeper emotional bonds. As a peripatetic person with my frequent home relocations in recent years I did not have time to forge deeper relationships. Add to the mix my differing personal and cultural interests and striving for self-awareness to the point where my saga seems to be captured by the phrase always an outsider, never a native.

Instead of the downer prompted by the “no close friends” and “you are an outsider” litany of woe (unadulterated self-pity and ego preoccupation on my part of course), there could be a more obvious solution.

Rather than concluding that I am an “oddball” that finds it difficult to fit in, I sense that the community I seek is not to be found in a community or geographical place. Rather, it is to be discovered through a journey inward, to a home where the heart is. 

Maybe I have been searching for satisfaction that purportedly comes from our human connections in the wrong place. The solution is by us going inward before we venture outward. 

The key to real community is in my pocket and not with others. It occurs when I make the choice to see the Christ (Buddha, Krishna, Imago Dei) in others, validate it in myself, appreciate our universal oneness, and love what I see in you. This could well be the glue to true human connection. 

Go inward. Experience my inner essence and that of others.

I guess that is what “loving your neighbor as yourself” is all about. That is the place of rapprochement, genuine human connection, and the building block of community. It is also a way of seeing myself in them, both the dark as well as the light side. We all walk in each other’s shoes. We are united in both life and death. And through this inner essence we have more in common than external factors like culture and personality that divide us.

Finally, the more I make that inward journey the more I value discourse and contact with people who seek the deeper life. Throughout this memoir I have mentioned such persons. These are my soul mates on life’s journey. They are where I find my deepest interpersonal satisfaction.

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Get Yourself a Truth-Teller

We can all do with a few truth-tellers in our lives since we all occasionally succumb to phony behavior or groupthink. They can encourage beginner’s mind and innovation in our organization.

Another name for a truth-teller is a devil’s advocate. The phrase originally came from the Latin Advocatus Diaboli. This was a role prescribed by the Roman Catholic Church to an official who argued against the appointment of individuals to sainthood. This person was typically looking for character flaws that would disqualify the candidate from being elevated to sainthood.

Ancient truth-tellers included the court jester who had permission to give royals candid feedback without the risk of having his/her head chopped off. Our modern court jesters are our comedians like Trevor Noah who split our sides with laughter and blow our minds with truth.

In a similar fashion a DA in an organization “kicks its tires” by challenging the ideas of others.

However, how exactly does a person have to behave to be an effective DA? Here are some best practices.

Don’t

1.  Confuse being a devil’s advocate with an oppositional personality.

Such personality types love being contrarians with the compulsion to argue every position. Their goal is not to seek the best solution for the organization through consensus. They just love a good fight. One such person on observing two people in an argument asked, “Is this a private fight or can anyone join in?”

2. Always contradict what others say

An ineffective devil’s advocate always needs to be right and does not tolerate other opinions. The typical communication style is telling and not facilitating. They view themselves as ultimate Subject Matter Experts. Dealing with their self-assured posture is like running into a brick wall. You go nowhere fast and come away with a severe headache. The key to being effective as a DA is to find ways to build on what others say with yes/and responses rather than yes/but interactions.

3.  Be a jerk

A true test of whether a person is acting like a jerk in a group setting is that everyone comes away from the experience with a bad taste.A jerk is someone with a major personality disorder and needs to be shunted out of group discussions as quickly as possible. This requires skilled management abilities where firm ground rules are set for participation in a group.

Do

1.  Add to the diversity of thought in the group 

Someone who adds to the diversity of thought in the group increases the possibility of innovation. In so doing a DA forces the group to see things in new and different ways. Typically such persons are new to an organization, from a different cultural background, and have professional experience that is not the same as the majority of the group members.

2.  Respectfully challenge leaders

The other day a senior executive told me how to one of his reports challenged him on his proposed strategy. He said, “I found it very refreshing to be challenged by one of my junior staff. He forced me to see issues in a totally different light

3. Protect the messenger

In organizations where conformity to authority is the cultural norm the devil’s advocate is typically silenced. A person who can raise critical questions in a constructive way is crucial to the success of any group and is worth his/her weight in gold. He/she needs the endorsement and protection of the organization or senior leaders for the DA role.

4.  Push the boundaries 

The DA is not constrained by the plea “we have always done things this way”. He/she would typically ask “Why?” The key to the success of this questioning style is that the organization gives permission and encourages others to call into question its very tenets or accepted wisdom.

So go ahead and encourage the role of a DA in any of your organization’s group discussions. The sky will not fall down but the world of creativity will open up before your very eyes. The new insights you bring to the table are opened up by the curiosity and beginners mind that you foster in your group with your DA role.

5. Balance truth-telling with diplomacy 

Recently a friend of mine had to resign from her job because the organization pushed back on her truth-telling. That reminds me of a recent book title “The Truth Will Set You Free. But First it Will Piss You Off”. DA’s need to walk the tightrope of balancing being candid with the level of tolerance in the organization for truth-teling. Not always an easy task. Here truth-telling requires both courage and wisdom.

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Managing a Difficult Leader by Doing the Opposite

This article is an excerpt from my sacred memoir “Not Everyone Who Wanders is Lost” at breakframe.wordpress.com

Some leaders really rattle my cage. And when I get hot under the collar I sometimes react rather than respond in ways that can escalate a problem situation. On observing my reaction to one difficult leader one friend advised me, “Don’t poke the bear“.

This senior executive has a huge organization-busting ego, its her way or the highway, she always needs to be right, and becomes a drill sergeant and bully when people stand in her way. My ineffectual response in this instance was to joust with her and push back. I should have known better than to let her hit my hot button. The result was not quite World War 3 but it seemed to come close at times. After I left the organization (along with three other employees who protested her style of leadership), I reflected,

Surely there had to be a better way to manage such relationships?

I am reminded of the Seinfeld episode where George Costanza comes to the realization that nothing he does in his life works out for him. All his decisions seem to be the wrong ones. So he comes up with the stunt that from now on he will “Do the opposite”. There is often wisdom in comedy. So when I feel the ego cramping my style by suggesting mindless responses like “Fight back“, I ask myself, “How can I demonstrate kindness towards this person?” or better still, “How can this person be my teacher not my nemesis?”

I must add one note. Just because a person is behaving like a jerk does not mean that I have to wave the white flag in dealing with the conflict. Surrender often is a way of being codependent or reinforcing the bad behavior. We have to also stand on principle and observe best practices in conflict resolution.

The key to a successful resolution is to regard the conflicted situation as a problem to be solved rather than a battle to be fought. After we take time out and cool down we can choose wise mediation, agree on the overall strategy that needs to be realized, gain insight to why the person responds from fear and not courage, and consider what is best for the organization and the customers. All of these practices are a way of “doing the opposite”. None of them are fight or flight. All of them start with regulating our own responses and not trying to change the “problem” leader.

Finally, do the opposite when your behavior exacerbates the situation.

Question

How have you managed difficult behaviors in a leader?

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My Failure, My Friend

In a culture besotted with success how can we have a more productive relationship with our failures? And at the same time not lower our standards in the pursuit of excellence?

Some measures that we use in our organizations are helpful like the “voice of the customer or employee”. Such metrics keep us honest about the value and quality of our performance.

However, we are at a point in our national and personal history where we need a paradigm shift that keeps us from trying to avoid failure at all costs. Wallpapering our shortcomings to hide them from the world and polishing our perpetually successful image is not our real world. It is not the voice of our best self.

The good news is that we all fail by the standards of the perpetual success paradigm. For example,

·     A huge percentage of Start Ups don’t make it on the first (or second or third) attempt

·     We have all been laid off from our job at some time

·     Many of our relationships have not been satisfying or productive

·     And so on and so on 

How then can we make friends with our own mistakes and failings?  

1.  Don’t indulge in shame-based messages like “The mistake that I made is the mistake that I am”. It is how we view failure that counts. 

2.  Avoid catastrophic all-or-nothing thinking that views a mistake as the end of our world. Instruct your crazed mind that the failure was a “learning trial”.

3.  Look at examples of people like St. Francis of Assisi who did not take offense when he was insulted or criticized. Such a mature disposition adopts a detachment from the opinion of others. Or in the words of ancient Hindu wisdom, “Do your duty to god without your eyes on the fruit of your action”.

4.  Have the insight to know that the pursuit of perpetual success is what psychologist Carl Jung named our “shadow” or false self.

If degrees were awarded for failures in life I would have a Ph.D. Here I reflect on a recent meditation of Fr. Richard Rohr

One of the great surprises on the human journey is that we come to full consciousness precisely by shadowboxing, facing our own contradictions, and making friends with our own mistakes and failings. People who have had no inner struggles are invariably superficial and uninteresting. We tend to endure them more than appreciate them because they have little to communicate and show little curiosity”.

Your Story

How was your “failure” one of the best things that happened to you?

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Interview by the Executive Diary with Cedric on his Life’s Work

From the Diary Of 

Cedric Johnson 

Cedric is an expert in leadership transition and inspiring leaders to empower others. We are delighted that Cedric has agreed to answer some questions and provide us with the value of his insight into inspirational leadership

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Don’t Play Whackamo With Your Ego

We all have ego challenges. Our anthem often seems to be “I did it my way”. But this egocentric striving works against productive collaboration. It stifles the generation of new ideas and thought leadership. It divides us from each other. My way as the only way is the highway to the “othering” of those around me.

But trying to make the ego disappear just makes it stronger. So here is a roadmap for the management of this pesky part of our person.

Step One. Awareness

The worst thing I can do when my ego rears its ugly head and tell me I am the center of the universe is to deny its presence or try and push it out of my life. That denial strategy becomes like the arcade game of Whackamo where one hits mechanical moles with a mallet as they pop up from their holes. The more you knock them down the more they pop up. A better way of managing the ego is to say to it, “I see you. There you go again!”

Step Two. Compassion

When I judge myself for my small-minded ego responses the worse I feel. But when I laugh with (not at) the ego the more likely I set myself on course towards an authentic soulful response. I am not good at self-compassion because the ego tells me “You will give others an advantage over you”. My usual response to this ego voice is “tell me something I don’t know“.

Step Three. Choose The Opposite 

Some folks really rattle my ego cage. There is a leader that I know that has a huge ego, needs to be in control, and becomes a drill sergeant and bully when people stand in the way. My typical ego response is to joust with this person and push back hard. Surely there has to be a better way than conflict to manage such relationships?

I am reminded of the Seinfeld episode where George Costanza comes to the realization that nothing he does in his life works out for him. All his decisions seem to be the wrong ones. So he comes up with the stunt that from now on he will “Do the opposite”. There is often wisdom in comedy. So when I feel the ego cramping my style by suggesting mindless responses like “Fight back”, I ask myself “How can I demonstrate kindness towards this person?” In so doing this person becomes my teacher and not my nemesis.

Stage Four. Look for the true essence in myself and others

Often love, our energizing force, lies deep within us in the shadow of the ego. Any introspective venture starts with the question “Why?” Like the song of Mary in Jesus Christ Superstar I confess at times “I don’t know how to love you”. To even begin to fathom why our loving nature is constricted we need to go inward.

I need to take my needs, struggles, and ego out of the mix before I can even begin to express my loving self. I also need to be aware of what inhibits love like the struggle with its impermanence, arm wrestling with my ego, and fear that makes me believe that there is scarcity in the world resulting in my losing out in some way or another.

Now it would seem simple to say to myself “Choose to be your loving self and the other more negative stuff will melt away”.Easier said than done. At times you just don’t will yourself into loving. However one must be aware of our internal barriers that keep us from loving. 

The chief path to love is to see the value within each individual that connects us to them. Seeing their inner Buddha, Christ, or essence makes even the most gnarly character lovable. What’s there not to love about that? And then the final step is to access that inner essence in ourselves in quiet meditation and to respond to our crazy world from that place.

Often when I reach the end of all my resources and all my practice seems to fail me I come to the point of surrender where I confess “I can’t”. It is in that moment that I receive the gift of grace.

Surrender is a path to the soul-self.

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