Newsletter 643 – The Art of Building Greatness

Every year, usually in February, I teach a course at Richmond Graduate University in Atlanta. Currently titled “Models of Relating Christianity and Counseling,” the course has two textbooks including Practicing Greatness published by Reggie McNeil back in 2006. The author is not a counselor and the book never mentions what we once called “the integration of psychology and theology.” Instead, McNeil writes that aspiring to greatness is an admirable goal, consistent with humility, and worthy for leaders in every “sector of society,” presumably including mental health professions. With a clear Christian emphasis, McNeil discusses the disciplines of self-awareness, self-management, self-development, mission, decision-making, belonging, and aloneness. My class is built on the assumption that who you are and who you become as a spiritual leader is more important than what you do to combine faith and practice.

Lewis Howes 1A more contemporary book (which is not a textbook for the course I’m teaching) is The School of Greatness by Lewis Howes, a “two-sport all-American athlete and former professional football player.” When a career-ending injury left Howes out of work and sleeping on his sister’s couch he knew that gridiron greatness was impossible. Eventually he rose above his disappointment and became an Olympic gold-mentalist and very successful businessman who received White House recognition as one of the top 100 entrepreneurs in the country under 30. This success was a result of hard work, determination, the development of specific habits, and a concentrated effort to learn from “masters of greatness,” including many whom Howes got to know personally.

For Christmas I gave copies of The School of Greatness to several friends who are facing career decisions. The author does not write from a Christian perspective but he gives a number of practical guidelines, some of which are well accepted but easily forgotten. Illustrated with captivating stories and personal discoveries, the chapters focus on issues such as creating a vision, turning adversity into advantage, cultivating a champion’s mindset, managing your body, practicing positive habits, and living a life of service.

This is a self-help book, “a real-world guide to living bigger, loving deeper, and leaving a legacy.” Self-help books are not all bad. This one is thought provoking, written by a successful young guy who has good insights for readers of any age: maybe including your clients, your parishioners, or even you. Please leave a comment.

Newsletter 642 – Connecting Across Cultural and Age Barriers

baguette 14Last week’s newsletter brought this thoughtful response from Sheryl Bullock who is a life coach: I am not particularly good at crossing cultural and age barriers to develop relationships with others. I would love to hear your stories about the people you mentioned…. What questions did you ask them initially? How did they respond? At what point did you know you had made a good connection with them? …There is a huge need for this information. People love stories and I think you still have many to tell!

Here are some observations that I’ve had to this point:

  • Ask God to lead. Sometimes when I will go into a church service, fitness club or restaurant I ask God to open a conversation that might be of value. The previous post mentioned friendships arising from casual conversations with a grocery checker, a waiter, and a stranger at a conference book table. These contacts seemed to arise spontaneously. Did they? Be available and you will be connected.
  • Cultivate the attitudes that characterize all good cross-cultural conversations: Be friendly, sensitive, willing to learn, respectful, authentic, not paternalistic (looking down on others), flexible. It’s amazing how people respond positively to attitudes like these.
  • Resist your biases. (We all have them). If you disapprove of people who differ from you, this will be picked up quickly. That stifles connectivity.
  • Express genuine interest in others. Ask open-ended questions. Then listen. Recently my wife and I moved into a condo community where we didn’t know anybody. Doors have opened with statements like “Hi, my name is Gary and we’re new here. Tell us about you.” Ask others about themselves and they usually respond. This works with visitors to your church, for example, with people you meet in the fitness club, or even with busboys who pick up your restaurant dishes.
  • Respect boundaries by avoiding personal questions or asking about confidential information.
  • Expect that some people won’t respond to your overtures. This may reflect shyness, discomfort with your friendliness, or cultural differences. What works where I live will need to be adapted elsewhere.

Previously I mentioned a good friend who is French. He jokes that his countrymen are like baguette bread: hard on the outside but very soft once you get past the crust. This takes time, patience, and sensitivity but the benefits are great. How have you connected across age and cultural gaps? Please comment.

Newsletter 641 – How to Be People Builder

In 1976 a book appeared that has sold more than any of the others I‘ve written. How to Be a People Helper was an introduction to counseling written mostly for church people, including pastors, when professional mental health services were less popular and accepted than they are today. The book still sells even thoutwo men 10gh it’s way outdated. The publisher was not interested when I suggested an updated 40th anniversary edition but in many ways my focus has shifted from people helping to people building. This is a focus on walking with those who are going through transitions, decision-making and other life events that are less in need of counseling and better served by friends, encouragers, mentors and trained coaches.

There are few books or courses on people building but, for what it’s worth, here is some of what I’ve learned:

  • If you want to make an impact as a people builder, open your eyes and ask God to show who you might influence. I have connected with many people in my neighborhood, community, church, and classes. One example is a brilliant graduate student who arrived as an undocumented immigrant and checked out our groceries in a supermarket when he was a teenager. Another is a biracial waiter with dreadlocks and a passion to succeed as a pop musician. He was our server in a local coffee shop. There’s also a native Parisian, pastor in Paris, author and specialist in multicultural marriages. We met informally at a conference. Today these are among my closest friends. We build one another.
  • Show a genuine interest in the people you meet. Ask about their backgrounds. Listen to their stories. Expect to be surprised at what develops.
  • Recognize that each of us has a personality and a place where we have been planted. For me, striking up conversations with strangers is easy. I live in an apartment building, still teach, and regularly go to a fitness club. Remember the cliché: bloom where you are planted. Focus on the people who surround you. Let God work through your circumstances and personality.
  • Expect to make a difference. Legacies or resumés don’t interest me but I know what I want to leave after I’m gone: people whose lives and careers I’ve helped to build. Whatever our ages, we still have time to: Be a People Builder!

Please comment about your experiences as a people-builder or about people who spent time building you.

Newsletter 640 – A thoughtful Football Story

Concussion 2If you follow American football you may be aware of a new book and motion picture each titled Concussion. They tell the true story of a Nigerian physician named Bennet Omalu who came to the United States, earned several additional degrees and became a renowned specialist in forensic neuropathology. One day Dr. Omalu “picked up a scalpel and made a discovery that would rattle America in ways he never intended…. The body on the slab in front of him belonged to a fifty-year-old…[football player], one of the greatest ever to play the game.” Prior to his death the football player had developed serious mental deterioration. Omalu discovered that this was caused by a brain disease resulting from “relentless blows to the head that could affect everyone playing the game.” The Concussion book and movie give a fascinating account about how others responded to this discovery and how the National Football League (NFL), “a multibillion-dollar colossus” tried to silence the doctor and discredit his work.

Why should you or I care? Here are two observations:

  • Be cautious about discrediting research that we dislike. The NFL is a huge corporation that tried to silence Omalu and produce research to disprove his results. This research was suspect from the start because it was NFL funded. But this is not limited to a football league. American politicians do something similar when they discredit research that appears to undermine their political agendas. Don’t theologians do something similar? What about academicians, advertisers, or public speakers who select or create research to support their positions and condemn or ignore the rest? If you do research, do it well. If you site research, be fair and try to site competent sources.
  • Be alert to the ways in which ideas, intellectual property and discoveries can be hijacked by others intent of gaining acclaim and money. Omalu’s discovery was claimed by others who took his ideas and built profitable organizations without acknowledging his contributions. When your dreams and accomplishments have been taken form you and used by others, it is difficult to trust again. Omalu struggled with this and withdrew, never expecting that the true story would be told. The book describes him as a man of courage. He also appears to be a man of integrity. That involves doing what is right regardless of whether anybody is watching.

Are these comments biased? Have I been unfair? Hopefully not! Even so, there’s value in pondering the stories of others and insuring that we’re not guilty of similar unethical actions. Please comment.

Newsletter 639 – New Year’s Attitudes

Quotation 7We all know this. The week around New Year’s Day is about reflecting on events of the year that is passing and thinking about the year that’s ahead. New years’ resolutions, goal setting, plans and expectations all come to our attention. They concern individuals, families and careers. Often they are a focus of companies, ministries, and organizations. These reflections and resolutions are not bad. They motivate us to action but there is research evidence that they rarely work very well to bring permanent change. Many involve trying to eliminate long-engrained habits that have lodged in the synapses and neural pathways of of our brains.

In case you are wondering, I rarely make resolutions. But I do spend time reflecting, setting goals for the year ahead, and initiating behavior changes that hopefully will stick. All of this is taken seriously but I plan the future lightly, aware that unforeseen circumstances can disrupt our best developed plans and recognizing that God alone knows what’s ahead.

During this past year, I’ve thought increasingly about the attitudes that influence so much of what we do. Most of us know people who seem super bitter, cynical, critical or engulfed in similar sour mindsets. These ways of thinking rarely accomplish anything. They can pull us into discouragement, perpetual anger, and sometimes hopelessness or despair. And they alienate everyone who hears the complaining.

Quotation 3When I was in graduate school a few of us spent a day with Victor Frankl, the Jewish psychiatrist to survived a Nazi prison camp. He watched fellow prisoners die because they had no hope. In contrast, those who survived had found meaning, despite their circumstances. (The quotation on the left comes from Frankl). Whatever comes in the new year will be met with some kind of attitude. Perhaps a positive perspective should be part of our new year’s plans and resolutions. That’s especially true for those of us who live with awareness of God’s ultimate control, care, and reason for hope

What do you think? Please comment.

Newsletter 638 – Avoiding Holiday Death Spirals

Are you in the midst of a holiday death spiral? This is a new concept for me, coming from a post last week by author Donald Miller. Perhaps Miller coined this term (and named it HDS). He defines this as a “deadly infestation of lies that hits us in the holidays where we start thinking calories don’t count and budgets don’t matter. The spiral usually has us thinking we can do anything we want during the holidays because we will correct it in the new year.” In January we castigate ourselves for this unwise thinking and face often-painful steps to undo the damage.

Spirals arise when some behavior or way of thinking gets bigger and bigger until it is out of control aspiral 1nd potentially destructive. A little lie is covered with deceptions that keep getting larger until everything becomes public with devastating consequences. Addicts of all kinds start small and then keep adding more (more alcohol, drugs, pornography, gambling) until stopping becomes extremely difficult. A little deviation from a diet or from a plan of action enlarges into deviations that are bigger until everything spins faster and leads to collapse. All of this is aided with mental rationalizations or excuses intended to justify our actions. Other people often encourage our spirals or become enablers who protect us from the consequences of our own out-of-control thinking. Even conspiracy theories or fantasies get bigger and bigger, fed by half-truths and selective perceptions. Of course these different examples don’t always lead to death but the consequences can be damaging nevertheless.

The first step in avoiding spirals is to recognize their power and to resist the temptations that lead to their growth. Goal-setting and determination to change can help protect or get us back on track. But the more we are into the spiral, the less we can stop ourselves. In part this is because our brains change as we spiral so stopping is tougher. A crucial help in avoiding or stopping spirals is the presence of other people like accountability partners who are available and who respect us enough to be tough when we waver. Prayer is a huge part of this, especially when we are supported by others.

So go back to HDS. What are you or your clients doing to experience a holiday season that will not be regretted later? What have I missed in this post? Please comment.

Newsletter 637 – Qualities of Creative Leaders

Several months ago a friend introduced me to a blog titled Farnam Street Brain Food: www.Farnamstreetblog.com. This is a weekly posting on diverse topics, many on leadership, education, psychology, books, and unusual Internet commentary all compiled and written by Shane Parrish who lives in Canada (Ottawa Ontario). In his most recent post he mentioned that Farnam Street takes hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars a month to sustain. It is widely read and free of cost, supported by readers who make donations in response to periodic low-key requests for donations. Probably there are many subscribers like me who don’t have the time (or take the time) to read everything but it is worth checking out. There is no Christian emphasis and you won’t agree with everything, but it’s a good way to sample the huge world of blog posts, many of which deal with topics or sources that most of us would not see otherwise. Here are examples:

Ogilvy 6 Ogilvy 3The November 27, 2015 post listed mini-articles titled “Your Brain is Programmed to Reach False Conclusions,” “The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Art,” and “Ten Qualities of Creative Leaders.” The latter was taken from a well-known advertising executive named David Ogilvy. Sometimes described as “The Father of Advertising,” he never wrote a book although last year his friends and family published The Unpublished David Ogilvy, a collection of Ogilvy comments and lists compiled long after his death in 1999. People who knew him confirmed that Ogilvy personally lived out the succinct list of qualifications that he sought in the creative leaders he hired:

  1. High standards of personal ethics.
  2. Big people, without pettiness.
  3. Guts under pressure, resilience in defeat.
  4. Brilliant brains — not safe plodders.
  5. A capacity for hard work and midnight oil.
  6. Charisma — charm and persuasiveness.
  7. A streak of unorthodoxy — creative innovators.
  8. The courage to make tough decisions.
  9. Inspiring enthusiasts — with trust and gusto.
  10. A sense of humor.

Be honest with yourself. Which of these do you have? Which do you want? How could you develop these? Please comment on the list or on the Farnam Street blog.

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