What Is Your Value?

We are constantly evaluating and being evaluated. Grades, applications, audits, performance indicators, reviews, evaluations, assessments, appraisals, exams, measures.

And those are the external evaluations.

We also have the constant litany of internals comparisons: Is he/she more/less successful/smart/thin/interesting/accomplished/talented/wealthy/attractive/likable/famous/stylish/better/lovable than me? Sometimes those comparisons and assessments come from others, often giving credence to our worst fears or best hopes. Sometimes we cannot even hear the value/praise or suggestions/concerns from others because our internal script is so much louder and more definitive.

Who determines our value?

It’s easy to say that we determine our own value, yet the affirmation or criticism of others often carries consequences. Even if our livelihood does not depend on that evaluation, we may attach psychological value to those opinions as if each acquaintance or loved one is literally St. Peter.

I’m not even sure it’s correct to say that we determine our own value. We all have blind spots, biases and unspoken fears which all impede our ability to make an accurate judgment of what is the epitome of “too close for objectivity.”

If the judge is not ourselves, and not others, when who?

To me, the question is moot. Our value as humans, both individually and collectively, is beyond judgment. It’s analogous to asking what is the value of a rock? One rock may not have much value, but where would we be with no rocks? Our existence is tied to that rock, to the water, the air, the mosquito and to each other. We each bring a light to the world that is precious and common at the same time.   Like the rock, we are each essential and yet dispensable. We don’t have to attach value to that. We just are.

Similarly, who am I to judge someone else? I don’t need to feel better than someone else to feel good about myself. My light and connection is not affected by how successful or talented someone else is. Yet I dim my light when I engage in jealousy, spitefulness, or contempt, so I’m only hurting myself.

I am not above such feelings, however. To be human means a constant struggle with our fears and the monologue in our head that feeds the fear. Love, gratitude, connection and forgiveness are the enemy of fear and feeds our light. And that is what I value.

Circular Logic Blind Spots

I love self-assessments such as the VIA character strengths assessment.    Like all self-assessments, however, such tests have their shortcomings.

For example, how about a decidedly non-scientific survey:  How humble are you on a scale of 1 (not at all humble) to 10 (very humble)? How narcissistic are you on a scale of 1 (not at all narcissistic) to 10 (very narcissistic)?

Though not exact opposites, humility and narcissism are roughly on different ends of a spectrum. Both can be measured more accurately tests such as the VIA or Narcissistic Personality Disorder Test, though at an extreme, narcissism is also a clinical condition that is diagnosed by a clinician.

Even if you were to use the free tests, both personality types potentially suffer from circular logic that starts from a blind spot and then is re-circulated by our ego. For instance, if I believe that I’m humble, then I’m not being very humble. If I don’t think I’m humble, then that’s a humble self-reflection. This circular logic is influenced by our ego and biased self-perception, leaving us in this never-ending logic loop.

The same (but in an opposite way) is true for narcissism. If I suspect that I’m narcissistic, then it’s pretty hard to be really narcissistic if I think that I may be self-centered.   If I don’t think I’m narcissistic then I may actually be somewhat self-centered. (However, apparently clinical narcissism may also be diagnosed by asking one question: “Are you a narcissist?”.)

We all tend to believe the best (or for some of us, the worst) about ourselves.   The point is, we’re never truly objective about ourselves. Our self-conception has been biased by our personal scripts and by what we have been told or led to believe by others. That bias, whether positive or negative, means that we all have blind spots as we are unaware of the areas that we can’t or don’t want to see.

I don’t have a magic translator that interprets your scores into a true humility/narcissism levels. However, I do want to introduce some curiosity into your self-conception. Our self-ratings are a best guess average containing a level of error. Perhaps you’re not as high/low on those scales as you think. Consider viewing your score not as the single number but a range of numbers that hover to the right or left of your selection, where the magnitude of the span is proportional to the limits of our self-awareness.

Like with all other strengths/opportunities for growth, we are better able to find our wisdom or sweet spot for exercising our strength by increasing our awareness of when and where we tend to do well or poorly.  Simply acknowledging that our blind spots and bias exist and our uncertainty about how well/poorly we are doing is an excellent start.

At least in my humble opinion.

How Are You?

This little greeting is really so mundane that we don’t usually stop to think about what it means or how to respond. I guess at one point this question was meant with great sincerity and interest but has evolved into the equivalent of “hello.” Another version of this question in Richmond is “What’s the good word?” I still am not sure how to answer that question.

Frankly, I’m not sure how to answer How Are You anymore either. The usual response in the past used to be “Fine. How are you?” or “Doing well, thanks for asking” or something along those lines.   Now, the typical response is “Busy.” Usually there’s a little exhale at the end, thus ending both the speaker’s daily micro break and the conversation at the same time.

That’s it. Just “Busy.”

It makes sense. We are all busy! We really are. Though in these empty nest days, I’m far less Busy than I used to be. I’m still Busy, but comparatively speaking, it’s a cakewalk.

I spent a few moments reflecting about the transition from Fine to Busy. The responses tend to be fairly meaningless, unless it’s the equivalent of a multiple choice question:

  1. How are you?

     a.  Fantastic! How are you doing?

     b.  Fine, thanks for asking.

     c.  OK. How are you?

     d.  Hanging in. What about you?

     e.   Busy. (sigh)

In this case, the response actually is some reflection of the responder’s inner world where the answer is the most true among the available multiple choice answers. (“Well, I’m not really Hanging in. It’s worse than that. But it’s not Busy so much as Stressful. So I choose e. Busy. Final answer (sigh).”)

How did Busy even get on the list? I remember first hearing that response in graduate school in the 90’s. The response came from a German classmate, and it struck me as odd back then. Is that a German thing? Why is it important for her to make sure we know that she’s Busy?

Turns out she was ahead of her time.   Maybe even a trend setter.

The sentiment of Busy evokes the Covey Time Management grid theme, where tasks are sorted in a 2×2 with the axes being Urgent/Not Urgent and Important/Not Important. The point of the grid is that we often spend our time in the Urgent/Not Important quadrant (III) since we sometimes get into the habit of believing Urgent = Important.  Ideally, we should be spending our time in quadrants I or II.

Are you equating Urgent with Important? Do you select answer “e”? Maybe during your exhale, take that moment to consider whether you’re in the quadrant III and whether you need to move into quadrant I or II.

Easy for me to say. I’m an empty nester. I’m doing Fantastic, thank you very much!  Final answer.

Urgent/important Covey grid

Urgent/important Covey grid

Cardiac Exercise Revisited

Try this exercise: Find a time and a place that is somewhat quiet and free from distraction. Now, relax the muscles in your chest. Notice the energy and emotion coming from your heart and take a few moments to really experience that. What does it feel like? Next, envision your happy place, the people, place, or circumstance that makes you feel peaceful and joyful.   What happens to your heart energy?

Next, imagine taking the quality of this energy to another person. Would this energy change the quality of the interaction compared to bringing tight chest muscles? If so, in what way?

Now imagine a scenario that is scary, hurtful or frustrating, or where you’re feeling attacked. Now what happens to your heart energy? How would that energy impact the people you interact with?

Like many of you, I’m relatively new to this concept of energy and its impact on others. I’ve learned that having awareness and some ability to manage and tap into that resource has made me a more effective and peaceful person.

That quality of my energy affects how I feel. I can either feel closed to the world and the reality of others, or I can feel open and receptive to others’ reality, new ideas and the beauty around me.   When closed, I’m more likely to be in denial about the impact I have on other people, focused on my own problems and thoughts, and indifferent to the world around me.   When open, I’m more likely to be present and in the moment and feeling gratitude or appreciation for my extraordinary life.

I know that people notice and are impacted, even on an unconscious level, by the quality of my heart energy. I also know that I have the ability to determine the quality of my energy, as you may have just learned from this exercise. Though getting an unexpected text from a loved one or witnessing an act of love or kindness can open me up, mostly my openness is my decision and within my control. Literally opening the chest allows me to feel and share love and a sense of connection. Additionally, research shows that this kind of connection is good for our health.

So brush your teeth, exercise, eat your fruits and veggies, and relax your chest muscles! You’ll love the results.

Students Teach the Teacher

We sample Cuban food

We sample Cuban food

In study after study, positive psychology shows us that healthy, positive relationships are essential to our well-being. Relationships enable success, productivity, and the creation of positive emotions such as connection and love. In addition, all the success in the world is meaningless if you have no one to share it with. Thus, relationships also provide the foundation for meaning in our lives.

I have always felt particularly blessed for the friends and family in my life. The belief that love is synergistic, enhancing surrounding relationships, rather than a zero-sum game allows me to expand my circle rather than limiting it to a few. As a result, I feel rich in the most important way possible.

The idea of (platonic) love and relationships in the context of teaching has been an evolution for me as I’ve progressed from classroom teacher and advisor to more of a mentor/trainer/coach.   The latter has allowed me to explore anything and everything often in depth with the students, and in the process transforms the relationship from teacher-student to fellow travelers. The advantage of this co-education with post-baccalaureate learners is that we truly can engage on a peer level, which may not be available with younger students.

Meditation at Maymont

Meditation at Maymont

Earlier this week, we completed our summer outings series for students who have participated in our student development class, part of a larger program called VCU BEST. The idea behind VCU BEST is that we strive to educate the “rest” of the student beyond the academic portion of the brain. As such, we gather each summer for optional outings designed to explore our humanity and connection to each other and the larger world: a nature walk, comedy club, meditation, yoga, ethnic cuisines, feeding the poor and, most importantly, bonding with each other.

As I sit among this remarkable group of young people, I cannot help but feel so blessed to be among a group that is willing to both influence and be influenced by each other. Realizing that this is my work, my job, my vocation and avocation, to harvest the richness of the human experience, is a humbling responsibility and a joy. Thank you fellow travelers. Thank you world!

Serving dinner to the poor

Serving dinner to the poor

Return From Oz

A year later I’m still somewhat recovering after graduating from the program in positive psychology. The program is academically intense – a full-time executive graduate program on top of my normal life. Additionally, it was also personally intense as we were led on a personal journey where our views of life and self were forever changed. The sense of commune was also unlike I had ever experienced.

Coming back to the real world was a bit of a shock. Not only did I have free time again – what do I do with it now? – but I now view my old life with fresh eyes.   The same landscape seems richer somehow. The old insults and injuries are still there but not so daunting. My work has taken on a new dimension. My loved ones feel ever more part of me. Even going to the gym feels different but partly because my body has made an undeniable shift while I spent the year studying instead of working out.

Being in that program felt akin to being in Oz. It’s not real. After all, it’s an academic program of limited duration, with a class that was cloistered one weekend at a time among the most interesting faculty and topics you could ever imagine. You feel like you’re surrounded by unicorns and talking lions, and anything is possible. You face the ugly witches (your own) but feel surrounded by your best friends. You know it must end and you eventually will go home.

I wouldn’t say that my reality upon my return went from black and white to Technicolor, but it did in the sense that I’m now acutely aware of a dimension that had previously escaped my attention. That dimension, the relationship between the quality of my existence and my perspective and choices in life, adds an element that essentially puts a shiny halo on what was previously the mundane.

And like Dorothy, I don’t really want to be in Oz anymore. After all, the real world is so much more magical than I’ve ever imagined. I also know that I don’t need ruby slippers to find or create magic. Oz is inside and all around us, ready to be tapped at our command. We just need the courage and openness to find and create it in unexpected places.


Improve Your Emotional Intelligence – Go to a Movie!

You know those tear-jerker movies that have that swelling music in the background that’s designed to leave no dry eye in the house?

I hate those movies.

They feel manipulative to me, as if producers know that there’s a correlation between tears and ticket sales.

Same with scary movies. Why would I want to intentionally scare myself? I don’t like to feel sad or afraid, what’s the point of all that? If I want sadness, I’ll turn on the news.

It finally dawned on me. Movies, books, music, and the arts in general help us to practice our emotional range in a safe place.

Those of you who know me well know that I tend to be a fairly even-keeled person (at least I think I am). I’ve spent most of my adulthood keeping my emotional range fairly narrow. I don’t want to be a drama queen or the kind of person that cries at the drop of a hat.

The trouble with that approach is by narrowing the range on one end (negative), I also narrow the range on the other (positive) since we have to have a yin/yang balance emotionally.

For example, if you lack fear, it’s hard to have courage. If you lack sadness, it’s hard to have joy. If you lack loneliness, it’s hard to feel deep connection. If you lack vulnerability, it’s hard to feel safe. Same with light/dark, good/evil, etc. The yin does not exist without the yang. Allowing and even cultivating the range of negative emotions therefore allows extension of the range of positive emotion. Having the self-awareness and ability to use emotions constructively is one important facet of emotional intelligence.

I still don’t want to be a drama queen, per se, but extending my emotional range can help me feel more intensely alive and connected with others. By intentionally experiencing my sadness, my fear, my resentment, I can intensify my inspiration, my love, my awe. My tears are often expressions of happiness, gratitude, or just the joy of being alive. And yes, just as often they are an expression of sadness.

So grab a loved one and go have a Sadness Night at the movies. Have fun!

This is Silver Lining’s 400th blog!  We’ve reached 60 countries and over 2000 visitors.  Thanks to all of you who have traveled on this journey with me for the last 3+ years!

To Compete or Collaborate?

Competition is a strength that helps people to be successful in sports and beyond. When used optimally, competition energizes, creates fun, and helps individuals and teams to elevate their performance.

On the other hand, collaboration also has advantages. Collaboration broadens ideas, expands capacity, and allows for innovation that may not occur when working independently or competitively.

Collaboration and competition used together can produce synergistic results. Imagine the performance possibilities for a baseball team featuring a great collaboration between pitcher and catcher. Take it a step further and imagine the whole team is smoothly collaborating in both offense and defense. In contrast, if the infield was competing with the outfield, what impact would that have on team effectiveness?

In the workplace, team composition may not always be so apparent.   Team members may be spread between departments or organizations.  Furthermore, competition and collaboration may seem mutually exclusive if we compete for recognition, promotions and/or scarce resources even if we share common organizational or discipline-specific goals.

In addition, both competition and collaboration sound good in theory, but are often difficult to execute optimally. Inappropriate competitiveness can be viewed as self-serving. Collaboration may feel risky since sharing ideas or personal information can result in abuse of that trust.

It’s way too easy to fall into the mistrust/compete-with-peers/zero-sum mindset. Instead, perhaps that competition could be directed to my/our previous performance.  In addition, I could reframe my competitor as a collaborator that will help me to compete against another organization or industry (think: merger). Furthermore, how far can I expand the team umbrella, and thus the reach of the team? Being inclusive and sharing the opportunity tends to produce win-wins rather than win-lose situations.

Sharing also means risk, which means that sometimes you’ll get burned. However, consider the consequences of playing it too safe. What opportunities are you missing? Failing to collaborate or compete also has a cost that may be underappreciated. For example, I don’t like the risk of the stock market but not investing at all ensures that I will have financial loss over time as inflation eats away at the value of my money in my mattress.

In the end, like all things, finding the right balance between collaboration and competition takes wisdom and courage. The ups and downs are par for the course, but will make you wiser in the next round.  And celebrating that win is so much sweeter when done together.