A Freightcar Named Desire

“When you are discontent, you always want more, more, more. Your desire can never be satisfied. But when you practice contentment, you can say to yourself, ‘Oh yes – I already have everything that I really need.’” – Dalai Lama


The story of any achiever is one of desire. All success, all achievement that is meaningful, and all success stories begin with desire. Desire grips people with an insatiable appetite for action. If you have sufficient desire to succeed, nothing can stop you from becoming a winner, a leader, or a high performer.” – Paul J. Meyer, Success Magazine


According to Buddhism, desire is a poison that is at the root of suffering. Yet desire seems to be what helps us to be successful. The two seem completely at odds. Do we really have to choose between contentment and success?

I think the answer to that question depends on our definition of success. We  seem to know that money can’t buy happiness.   Yet we are still pursuing the status house, car, clothes and job.  $300 billion was spent on luxury goods in 2013.  In other words, are we still trying to buy happiness despite what we seem to know, or is that stuff just coinciding with our pursuit of authentic happiness?

Regardless of whether our pursuit of happiness is occurring intentionally through or accidentally with material success, I would guess that for most people who pursue that affluent lifestyle as an end in itself, the hedonic treadmill rules their sense of well-being. In other words, that new car is nice but now I need that nicer new car. So instead of that car bringing pleasure in the long term, it only brings more desire and a sense of incompletion. That desire can develop a life of its own and somehow overrun our lives.

In contrast, if one defines success by their ability to have a positive impact in a way that is authentic to them, then desire can be used constructively without creating an inner void.   For example, I might say that I want to be a brain surgeon because then I can save lives. That’s a great goal if standing in an OR for hours on end using fine motor skills in a high pressure setting is my idea of bliss. That is bliss for some people, hopefully for brain surgeons. But not for me. The key is to identify the unique way that I want to have a positive impact on the world.   If I identify accurately identify my authentic path, then my desire to pursue my path will provide meaning, purpose and possibly success to my life.

“Everyone has been made for some particular work, and the desire for that work has been put in every heart.” – Rumi

Note that the desire to pursue my authentic path is not focused on materialistic achievements, but rather on providing a meaningful purpose. Those who have the ability and the will to pursue that path will be more naturally motivated and therefore more likely to be successful in terms of rank and salary.   Even better, a sense of well-being results from having a positive impact on the world and doing the things that you love each day.  In a strange twist of synergy, being happy is more likely to make you successful.

“I believe that the very purpose of life is to be happy. From the very core of our being, we desire contentment. In my own limited experience I have found that the more we care for the happiness of others, the greater is our own sense of well-being. Cultivating a close, warmhearted feeling for others automatically puts the mind at ease. It helps remove whatever fears or insecurities we may have and gives us the strength to cope with any obstacles we encounter. It is the principal source of success in life. Since we are not solely material creatures, it is a mistake to place all our hopes for happiness on external development alone. The key is to develop inner peace.” – Dalai Lama



Personal Power: Use it or Lose it (Part 2)

What are you measuring?

What are you measuring?

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our Light, not our Darkness, that most frightens us” – Marianne Williamson , Founder of the Peace Alliance

What are your personal metrics? In other words, what cues do you use to decide whether you feel good, happy or satisfied?

In the past, my yardstick measured affirmation from others (attention, compliments, or affection) as my litmus test for feeling good. If others were interested in me or attended to me, then I felt good. If not, I wondered what was wrong with me. One of the many problems with this iceberg belief is that how I felt each day depended on others. Also, this belief subconsciously assumed a zero-sum gain: if someone else got attention, it meant that they were more deserving than I was, and there was less love for me. Harold Kushner, author of How Good Do We Have to Be? states that this belief is really what the Bible refers to as original sin.

This mindset is reminiscent of the hedonic treadmill. The hedonic treadmill refers to the never-ending need to have stuff that is nicer than the last. We get a short burst of pleasure from some treat, gift or luxury, but that soon wears off and the next gift has to be even nicer. All that luxury actually has us feeling worse in the end. Though the attention may not necessarily need to get better each time, using material goods and affirmation as our yardsticks creates emotional downward spirals if we must look outward for our sense of well-being.

Negative emotions themselves are also potentially downward spirals. Focusing on blame, criticism, judgment (whether of self or others), fear, resentment, and anger are degenerative and creates more negative emotion. Emotions can develop a life of their own, potentially consuming us and those around us.   The more I ruminate or complain to others, the more those emotions grow, making it harder recover. When I’m consumed by negative emotion, my problem solving ability and productivity plummet. Treating others well becomes nearly impossible.   To the degree that I’m infecting others with my negativity, I am also impairing their ability to do their job or to cultivate their own positive emotions or relationships. I’m a real sweetheart, aren’t I?

Positive emotions have the opposite effect. Joy, gratitude, curiosity, interest, amusement, love, contentment, and forgiveness are generative and synergistic. We feel there is ample good feeling to share and we plant that positive emotion growing in others. When I’m filled with positive emotion, I feel creative and generous and I want to share it with those around me.

But sometimes that positive emotion just feels inaccessible. We’re too busy. We’re too stressed. We’re too angry. You can’t imagine how I’m treated here!

Here’s where our personal power comes into play. Though you may not be able to control how you feel, you can manage your feelings. If you manage (or fail to manage) your feelings in a manner that feeds negative emotion, then your power becomes degenerative as you create that downward spiral in yourself and others. The opposite is true too; if you notice and feed your positive emotion, you grow your positive power for you and those around you.

It is indeed a fearsome and awesome power. Think about the power of Gandhi or Mother Teresa, and how their inner world transformed the world. Think about the power of Hitler, and his inner world on the course of history. We are no different. We can either manage our feelings to produce Light, or we can succumb and create Darkness. Our decision to manage our power and Light is always there, whether we choose to acknowledge and own it, or not.

In the first blog on personal power, I shared my Aha moments when I discovered my personal power. I think all of these realizations are related to using perspective to find the Light.  Instead of seeking affirmation, now my personal yardstick involves how well I am managing these positive and negative emotions. Did I notice, nurture, savor and share my positive emotion? Did I steer negative feelings into constructive action, improved perspective or personal growth? Staying focused on positive emotion allows me to feel good all day, but also to perform at my best in all of my roles and relationships. Now that’s a powerful yardstick.

The Problem Person and Negative Group-Think



Yes, it is so delicious to complain about someone else, especially when it becomes group entertainment. The person you just love to hate is so much fun to berate and denigrate (haha!). She is so awful to us, how can she act this way, doesn’t she know….?

It’s not just at work. Often in a family dynamic, one child or sibling is identified as the problem. Life would be so much easier if they would just see it our way and try to get along.

Chances are, you’re reading this blog because part of you senses that there’s something wrong with that approach of negative group-think. First, such an approach is not constructive, entertaining and satisfying though it may be. Second, it is harmful for the person who is the subject of that criticism. Third, negative group-think entrenches the dysfunctional dynamic rather than encouraging positive change.

In family dynamics, a problem child is usually the one acting upon the feelings that the family can’t express. For example, no one may be willing to vocalize the family’s fears about the chronic shortage of money, and so that anxiety is expressed by a child by acting out. Now the family can focus on the problem child because it’s easier to deal with him through blame and criticism rather than dealing with the elephant in the room.

I’m not sure whether the same type of dynamic exists at work. I can say though that the black sheep in one organization is sometimes the hero in another. Workplace culture mismatch is often the culprit rather than a character, talent or work ethic deficit. It may be true that a colleague just doesn’t fit in. That does not make her a bad person or incompetent.

I’m not suggesting we condone poor behavior or lack of performance. I’m suggesting that we quit vilifying others when trying to solve problems or improve performance.   For example, superstar employee though I am :), I would have a great deal of difficulty doing my job effectively if I felt that everyone was complaining about me and not supportive of what I’m trying to accomplish.  Who can be successful under such circumstances? The group is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy by Blaming-the-Victim. Now who’s the bad guy? Granted, letting go of the need to criticize or blame will not necessarily make someone perform, but at least you will not be contributing to the problem.

The Arbinger Institute suggests that we treat others’ needs, wants and desires as important as our own, whether we’re praising or reprimanding, rewarding or punishing. A colleague is either performing or he isn’t. Ascribing a failure of performance to any metric of motivation, talent, intelligence, integrity or intent is speculative, counter-productive and unfair. Give that person the benefit of the doubt and every opportunity to succeed. If they still can’t cut the muster then take action. If you can avoid getting emotional about the situation, you are more likely to avoid becoming the problem or contributing to the problem. After all, I would hate it if people began to criticize you.

The Problem Strength

As a strengths coach, I love all of the strengths that help to make us successful. But part of loving strengths is understanding that their use falls on a spectrum from optimum to needs improvement. Our challenge as humans is to find the wisdom to keep strength use on the optimum side.

One strength that is particularly difficult to manage sometimes is the strength related to problem solving: restorative. Those with the restorative strength (so named by Clifton StrengthsFinders) are great at anticipating and solving problems. They’re awesome at helping to keep things on track, even before things start to go wrong.

But like all other strengths, restorative can go into the “basement” all to easily. In other words, that restorative person can over-rely on that strength, finding problems beyond what is helpful or useful.   When the restorative strength is overused, that person could be viewed as overly critical or negative, especially if the person is also low on positivity.

The person with the restorative strength tends to find problems with self or others all too easily. They are often excessively hard on themselves and others and may be viewed as naysayers, constantly pointing out obstacles to change and progress. Those that are low in positivity may really struggle to keep the dialogue positive and balanced.

The lack of good boundaries is a problem for any strength.   For example, one of my favorite strengths is ideation, the creative thinking strength.   I can also misuse that strength if I fail to exhibit good boundaries with its use. When misusing ideation, others might accuse me of having my head in the clouds or being impractical. Taking a creative approach to filing my taxes or submitting a college application tend to be bad ideas. I just need to suck it up and adhere to the process or risk derailing the process.

The first step in improving on a personal issue is self-awareness. Understand the downside to your problem-solving strength and reflect how this natural talent might actually be causing problems. Understand when and where it is useful to use your strength, and when it is harmful. Develop your other strengths so that they are readily available alternatives in your toolkit. For example, during instances when I may over-rely on restorative, I may choose to use relator (builds deep relationships) and ideation instead. So rather than finding fault with my friend after her failed relationship, I might realize that a more effective approach is to build trust and support by listening. Helping her to identify her own problems and creative solutions instead of telling her what to do respects the fact that she has access to her own wisdom.

Or, in a strange twist of irony, turn that problem-solving talent onto problem-solving itself. Restorative person: can you fix the problem of over-problem-solving? No problemo.

The Squeaky Wheel

Important/urgent grid

Important/urgent grid

I hope by now everyone is familiar with the 2×2 grid of urgent/important, which teaches us that we should be focusing our time on what is important (and possibly urgent) and less time on the unimportant (and often urgent).   For example, that shoe sale that ends at 5 pm is urgent, but my closet will tell me that it’s definitively unimportant.

This prioritization often falls into the category of easier said than done, like most things worth doing. We probably are able to achieve a measure of success with it most of the time, and that’s probably all we can reasonably expect (we’re just human, after all). Besides, a little retail therapy during a stressful period can be pretty important sometimes too, right?

I believe most of us probably view this grid as a guide to how we should be spending our time. But I believe this grid should also inform what we do with our resources. For example, as parents, friends, spouses, family members, managers and colleagues, we must decide each day how to allocate time, attention, money, promotions, recognition, autonomy and so forth. For example, the working-too-much parental guilt stereotype says we spend too much or are too permissive with our children instead of giving them the time we subconsciously believe they need.   We may also over-prioritize building our children’s self-esteem rather than building their character. Spoiling/overpraising may seem urgent and important, but what may be even more important are the long term or bigger picture goals of teaching responsibility, gratitude, patience, and compassion.

Same is true at work. Though we are less likely to spoil employees because of some kind of guilt, the analogy comes to light when considering the problem employee. We may spend the majority of our time, energy and resources on the squeaky wheel or “problem child” because it feels urgent. Those folks may get extra training and development, one:one meeting time, the choice projects in hopes they will finally perform, or even the promotion.   In the meantime, the superstars and team players are left to pick up the pieces and do the dirty work, as their needs may seem to be neither urgent nor important.

This approach is like giving the screaming kid a lollipop while the good kid has to run to fetch it.   The screamer learns that by screaming, he can get rewarded, and the good kid just feels ignored and unimportant. In the end, everyone loses.

This observation does not mean that we ignore the problems and hope they go away. Rather, I am suggesting that we reward (not just financial) the behavior we wish to cultivate as the first priority in all employees. We may also look for the deeper reason for poor behavior instead of only attempting superficial solutions. The screaming child may really need consistent positive attention (not urgent, but important) rather than a lollipop (urgent, not important), along with clear boundaries and consequences that are consistently enforced. Yes, those consequences may be uncomfortable and unpleasant in the short run, but they can potentially pay off in the long run.

Less obvious are the examples in our adult relationships. Who is acting out? Are you rewarding that behavior with time, attention or resources? If so, how can you discover the underlying issue? Can you focus on that instead but with the proper boundaries? In other words, you can help someone else with an issue, but realize that in the end, it’s their responsibility to manage that issue. If they can’t improve despite your attempts to support them, it may be time for them to suffer the natural consequences of their behavior. Otherwise, the entire team will suffer the consequences for them.  And shoe shopping won’t cut it. Unless maybe you go to Jimmy Choo.

Sovereign of My Delight, Hear My Complaining

– Thomas Morley

There’s nothing like a good bi*** session, especially when done in a gossip context. Sometimes I just need to go there and vent a little. I’m not proud of it, but it does serve a purpose besides making me feel better. Jonathan Haidt, author of A Righteous Mind, describes gossip as society’s way for keeping cheaters in line. So I’m basically just doing my civic duty.

But this blog is about behaving responsibly, not about justifying my bad behavior.   I view it like eating dessert. Sometimes it’s necessary (depriving yourself completely actually makes you eat more), so it should be done in a limited fashion and as constructive of a manner as possible. Here are my thoughts on the subject:

  • Keep it brief. Ranting for more than a minute or so is self-indulgent and makes you look worse than the person you’re complaining about.
  • Take ownership of your bad behavior. Confess to stirring up bad mojo, apologize to the listener, and you’ll be less likely to indulge for long.
  • Don’t make it personal. Focus on the behavior, not the person’s character or motivation. You might think they have ill intent or are evil, but you don’t know for sure. Actually, in my experience, most people are well-intentioned.  More likely, they are struggling with how to handle a difficult situation.  Also, when it becomes personal, it becomes harder to forgive that character flaw rather than that mistake.
  • Give him the benefit of the doubt. You’re more likely to receive it in return.
  • Just like you might want to take a walk after having that lovely Godiva, spend a moment thinking about how you might have contributed to the problem. In this manner, maybe a less than ideal situation can be a learning opportunity.
  • If you’re not there to solve the problem, you’re contributing to it.  End the session with what you’re going to do to either manage or improve the situation.

So here’s my gossip for today: I indulged in complaining about someone else yesterday and am having pangs of guilt this morning.

Don’t worry, it’s nothing that a little chocolate can’t cure.

You Can’t Choose Your Family

One of the reasons we love our friends so much is because the relationship is optional. Not working out? Bail. Or work it out. It’s your choice.

Not so much with the family. True, you can choose to distance yourself from your family and avoid contact, thereby mitigating the impact of toxic or unhealthy relationships. But they’re still your family regardless of how much you might try to ignore that fact.

Marriage is one of those grey zones where it’s optional to stay together, but not really. The commitment ceremony means that you are now legally family even if there is not a blood bond. This legal commitment increases the likelihood that both parties will stay and work it out. Staying to work it out increases the likelihood that it will actually work in the long run. In other words, commitment to a relationship increases the chances of it working. Makes sense, right?

That logic applies to family as well. That blood bond is a built-in incentive to try to work it out. These sometimes difficult relationships are automatic opportunities to learn to manage all of our relationships more effectively and holistically. They’re built-in relationship laboratories. Aren’t we lucky?

Granted, it takes two to tango and you can’t have a relationship with someone who doesn’t want a relationship. But that justification – that someone else doesn’t want a good relationship – wears thin over time. From what I’ve seen, both parties tend to be reasonable in their own way and relationships break down when we fail to respect the others’ perspective and give them benefit of the doubt. Vilifying someone else for having a different opinion or style is a formula for a disastrous relationship.

I’m enormously grateful to my often crazy, sometimes wacky family for sticking it out over the years and not giving up on our relationships. They’ve taught me to try to understand and accept others as they are, to be patient, and to find the good in everyone no matter how hard they make it. If I had given up, I would never have learned these lessons and discovered the amazing people hiding behind a difficult exterior. That includes me.

Thanks family for your commitment and patience with me! Love you!

Up On A Pedestal

You’ve never had delusions of perfection, or you’ve given them up some time ago. Bravo! But what about your perception of perfection in others?

I know that no one believes that others are incapable of mistakes. That’s not the kind of perfection I’m talking about. I’m talking about the kind where one believes that another is lacking in character flaws, is a super star, and/or somehow manages to explain away ongoing, egregious behavior. It’s also the kind of perfection that leads one to believe that someone else is better or more important than they are.

That being said, there’s nothing wrong with giving your loved ones the benefit of the doubt and seeing their best side every day. I’m all for that. But putting someone up on a pedestal means being blind to their shortcomings as well as their needs.   For example, if I can’t see the shortcomings of my best friend, then I won’t be positioned to help her when she is open, receptive, or even asking to make a change. If she’s “perfect as she is” then I may not believe that she has any room for growth and may unintentionally discourage that growth. In contrast, believing she is “awesome as she is” allows room for growth.

Another way that the pedestal can be a bad for relationships is that it may be a barrier to real intimacy. For example, if you cannot see or understand the things that I struggle with, we can only communicate on a superficial level. I know that it feels gratifying to vilify your friend’s boyfriend when she complains about him. But when the same pattern emerges repeatedly over time and across the different men that she has dated, reinforcing her belief that it’s always someone else’s fault is not helpful.

Another example of pedestal behavior is viewing the other through the lens of who you think they are. I once had a friend who frequently said, “You must think that I’m….” even though I assured her repeatedly that I did not think that way. This type of behavior is a barrier to intimacy because she would not see who I really was, but rather she chose to see me only as she wished to see me.

The pedestal may include viewing another as a super-human who can handle and excel at the impossible and who doesn’t need any help or time off. I have seen this pedestal belief result in completely unrealistic expectations of another. For example, a superstar may be expected to take on an unreasonable load at work, home or school, without any help, sympathy or support. Again, this belief fails to see the person for who they truly are and stands in the way of an intimate relationship.

I’m not at all suggesting that we look for or focus on the flaws or limitations of our loved ones. Rather, I’m suggesting that we:

  • Stay open, curious, and nonjudgmental to whatever struggles, virtues, vices, and achievements that our loved ones bring to us
  • Be supportive without being critical or dismissive
  • Listen carefully when they share their true selves
  • Avoid giving advice unless asked (unlike this blog, but I assume you’re reading of your own volition)
  • View the relationship as a partnership, with both parties having equal standing

If you are lucky enough to have someone who is that special in your life, then do your part to see them for who they are. That super star may not need much, except a sympathetic ear and someone who understands them, flaws and all.

Your Attention, Your Reality

Someone told me recently that they have a complete grasp on reality and they call it as they see it. The inference is that others don’t have an accurate perception of reality. And thus the beginning of endless disagreements and arguments.

In fact, there are thousands of things that we can focus on at any given moment, including what we see, smell, touch, hear or taste. We can also focus on something that’s in our mind, past, present or future. So at any given point in time, what we choose to focus on is a choice. If I’m focusing on how loudly the clock is ticking, someone else watching TV may say the clock is not loud at all. We have different realities, and we’re both right.

We also have different realities when it comes to interpreting others’ behavior. I sometimes get this weird habit of noticing how wet or dry someone’s mouth is while talking. I’m not proud of it. It doesn’t happen that often. But when it does happen, I have a hard time not focusing on it. Just like if I said, “Don’t think of white polar bears.” What are you going to do?

Likewise, if I get fixated on someone else’s positive qualities, say how smart or clever they are, then I will just marvel at how wonderful and talented they are. I will have positive emotion (admiration, inspiration, enjoyment) and will share that emotion with others vicariously.

Or I can choose to get fixated on some negative quality. It might be that they incorrectly conjugate their verbs, have their bra strap showing, or that they’re somewhat clueless to social cues.   I might even decide they are narcissistic or self-absorbed. Confirmation bias says that I will notice cues that support my theory  and ignore those that refute it.  Pretty soon, I’m digging deeper and deeper into my negative and critical belief to where pretty soon I’ve decided that person is just not a worthy human being. Contempt, disgust, resentment abound. Now what am I sharing?

Others may be completely unaware of this person’s shortcomings. Well, I have a firm grasp on reality. They do not.

So here I am, frustrated and contemptuous of someone else’s narcissism, smug in the knowledge that I know reality but others don’t. How’m I doin’?

Does this sound familiar? I’ll bet we’ve all been here at one time or another.

It’s a natural tendency. But we don’t have to be a slave to our tendencies. Instead, beware of what you notice and focus on in others. That belief and focus defines you, not them. When you find yourself focusing on someone else’s shortcomings, just catch yourself in the act and switch your perspective. Find something to admire and love in that person.  Now your reality includes people that are good, talented, kind and loving.   And that’s a much nicer world to live in.

The Best Stage of Life

As a parent, I spent a good amount of time longing or planning for the next phase: when they sleep through the night, when they are potty trained, when they are in school, when they are driving, when they leave for college.

As an adult, I spent a good amount of time longing or planning for my next phase: when I finish college, when I finish graduate school, when I get married, when I buy a house, when I start a family, when I get tenure, when I retire.

I spent far too little time living in the present moment, appreciating and savoring it.   Somehow I kept feeling like the next stage would be better, while the current, amazing and wonderful stage was somehow not good enough.

As time went by, however, I started to realize that the current stage was pretty cool, even if considered typically “bad”. I loved the Terrible Twos and studying for my oral comprehensive exams. Even when things got difficult during the marriage, I relished the challenge of figuring out how to step up and surmount.  I loved the challenge of each stage: somehow having the hurdle seem ridiculously high allowed me to let go of any of my own expectations about the outcome.

That’s not to say the results were always that great, or that the challenges didn’t take their toll. But I loved every phase of the boys young life (some I loved more than others) and for each of my own, I can really appreciate the value of what those challenges brought to me:

  • Baby and pre-school – Incredible innocence, authenticity, growth and change. They turn from little blobs into tiny people with their own personality and we have the honor of watching them discover their world and experiencing everything for the first time.
  • Elementary school – Their personality, cognitive skills, social skills and physical ability continue to develop. They begin to discover the nuance and depth of our world, and understand how they fit into the world.
  • Middle school – Admittedly this was my least favorite stage but it was also fun. The social relationships become most important and they begin to separate themselves from their parents. It was fascinating watching them experiment and navigate the parental separation as they simultaneously form their identity with their peer group. The physical transformation during this stage is also remarkable – you literally can’t recognize many of these kids after they go through puberty.
  • High school – They experiment with adulthood as they step out into the world with more confidence. Where do they fit into the wider world? What are their world views and how will they influence their world? You can start to have real intellectual conversations with them as they bring their own unique insights to the world around them.
  • College – They are coming into their own intellectually and are starting to explore their professional selves. They are also learning how to live on their own and manage their own affairs as they literally leave the nest.
  • 20’s – This is the decade where we struggle to establish ourselves professionally and start our family. I had the most potential and was at my physical peak in my 20’s, but had probably the lowest self-confidence. Ironic.
  • 30’s – This decade is a blur, building career and family simultaneously. This was the hardest decade for me, as I was starting to realize that my self-awareness and expectations were creating the perfect storm. Pity the fools that knew me!
  • 40’s – In this decade I make a breakthrough in my inward journey where I finally realize that my life is not going to be as I had planned it and I step out of my own self-imposed box. Just knowing the box is self-imposed was a big step for me and it freed me to rediscover myself. School this time around is for the pure pleasure and enjoyment as opposed to the end result of obtaining a credential.   We also switch to becoming caregivers for our parents.
  • 50’s – To be written….

Probably the biggest accomplishment for me is just living in the present and enjoying the stage I am in.   It makes absolutely no sense living for a future that may not exist, especially when the present stage is so full of wonder and is so fleeting.

So the Best Stage of Life is the one you’re in.  Go ahead. Savor the present. I dare you.