Do you want your life to count—or to spend your life counting?

In this inaugural blog launching the Actionsmith Network, founder Diana M. Smith speaks to those just launching their lives—or perhaps reconsidering the ones they’re living—about four choices that added up to a life that counts.

Of the many times I’ve had to decide what kind of life I want to live, four stand out. Each time I found myself confronting some version of the same question: Did I want to make a difference in the world, or did I want to count the hours and days until my next vacation while counting the money I’d need to take it?

The first time was when I was fresh out of college and chose a poorly paying, highly demanding job counseling teenagers and organizing communities in some of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods. I took that over a better paying, less demanding job as a budding journalist with a highly regarded newspaper just outside Boston. At the time the gap in salary felt big, but the gap in experience felt chasmic. Each day I had a chance to touch and transform the lives of kids working hard to dodge drugs, pregnancy, and violence while grappling with the effects of racism and dead-end schools. I learned more about life, about people, about potential and persistence, and about myself in those seven years than I ever could have learned at school or on the job elsewhere.

The second time was when I decided to go to graduate school so I could learn how to change what I’d witnessed every day in the communities I served. Before deciding where to go, I considered a wide range of options: public policy schools, psychology programs, even business schools. In the end, I chose none of these. I picked a small, quirky, nontraditional interdisciplinary program that was focused on understanding and effecting change in individuals, groups, organizations, and communities. The program, which was housed in a school of education, lacked the status of more established, prestigious programs and promised less earning potential on the other side. At the same time, if I wanted to make a difference—and I very much did—I knew I’d have to build a much deeper understanding of how to transform people’s lives and the systems in which they lived them. On that front, I knew of no other program that came close. So there I decided to go, throwing myself into the task of learning from some of the best minds, then or since, on how people and systems learn, grow, and change.

The third time was when I was at the height of my career in my late forties, positioned to make a name for myself and the money that went along with it. Instead I spent half my time over six years caring for my dad who, after a catastrophic fall, went into a slow and steady decline. This required me to make a different kind of difference—not the writ-large difference that strokes the ego but the writ-small difference that stokes the heart. I was very conscious of this choice and very ambivalent about it. But at the end of the six years, after my dad had died, I knew it was the right one, not only because it was the right thing to do for my dad, whom I loved very much, but because it served to fundamentally shift how I saw myself in relation to people I’d always thought were so much more powerful than me.

The fourth choice was when I left the for-profit sector ten years ago to return to the social sector. For twenty years I’d consulted to some of the most innovative companies around—Apple, Herman Miller, and the Monitor Group among them. I’d had the opportunity to work with some of the best leaders, all of them committed to liberating people’s potential and to changing the way we work and live. So I never had a question in my mind about whether it was possible to create transformative impact in the for-profit sector. All I had to do was look at people like Steve Jobs and Tim Cook (Apple), Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook), David Kelley (IDEO), Reed Hastings (Netflix), Jeff Bezos (Amazon). Talk about impact.

Still, as I looked around, five years into a new millennium, I was becoming increasingly worried that society—the fabric that holds a people together and determines their fate—was growing so ragged and our approaches to social problems so stale that we were putting future generations at great risk. I could see evidence of a fast decline everywhere in how we grappled with such problems as education reform; climate change; electoral reform; differences in race, gender, class, sexual orientation, and religion; inequities of every kind; and violence both local and global.

And that’s when it hit me. There was one place where I did see people creating new ideas, raising controversial issues, pushing for change, inventing fresh approaches—all of it disrupting the status quo: the social sector. It seemed to me that while more and more politicians were being held captive by powerful, well-funded interest groups, and more and more business leaders were being held captive by Wall Street and a pervasive preoccupation with accumulating capital, leaders in the social sector were—at least relatively speaking—freer to move. And that relative freedom meant the social sector was uniquely positioned to push for societal change. So that’s why, in making my fourth and perhaps last career choice, I decided to see if I could help build within the social sector the leadership capabilities and relationships needed to bring about that change.

As I look back on what is now a forty-year career, I see four very different choices held together by a dual thread: the belief that I could make a difference, and the conviction that if I could, I should.

It’s never easy to find your path in life; it’s harder still to create one where none exists. There’s so much noise out there today about what you should and shouldn’t do that it’s hard to hear what lies within. But that only makes it all the more important to listen closely—very closely—to what you really want, to where your passion lies, even if it’s lying a bit dormant right now. Pay attention to that yearning you have for a life of purpose and meaning, to that impulse to make a difference. Take stock of your talents. Push aside all those practical worries for a moment, and uncover what matters most to you. Then, out of what you hear, find or create a way to build a life that matters, and stick to it until it does.

For ideas on how, check out the new Actionsmith Network website and subscribe to its blog, where you’ll hear from many people, each of whose paths have led to a life that counts.

Guest Blog: Robert McLain Smith on The Democratization of Facts

I had the amazing good fortune to be born into a family that, above all else, was endlessly interesting and curious. A prime source of both were my brother Rob and my dad who—though wildly different in many ways—shared a whip-sharp intellect, a love of debate, and a spirit of inquiry. Last week, Rob sent me an account of one of their conversations. Not only does it capture the two men, it captures one of the ironies of our times so well I thought I’d post it for you. 

Twelve years ago, just before my father died, he and I sat down to another one of our several-hour discussions (debates, really) to revise our list of the ten greatest inventions/discoveries to advance humankind. We held these sessions every ten years or so to provide for new insights and new developments.

To begin, my father recommended that we sustain some of our earlier submissions such as Johannes Gutenberg’s mechanical press with moveable type, which he credited with advancing the Enlightenment. I concurred. But to keep things lively, I proposed the internet as one of the ten greatest advances, and we were off to the races. While the internet was far from novel in 2003, the iPhone was still four years away and AOL but eight years old. So, my father stood somewhere between skeptical and aghast at my suggestion.

But that’s when I hit my stride: the internet, I claimed, would be the autocrat’s  kryptonite, scientists’ global lab, and a window on the world for schoolchildren. With the wind at my back, I finished with this: The internet will change the world by democratizing information. After much heated discussion, plus a few side trips to reaffirm the positions of fire and the electric light, my father agreed to grant the internet a “provisional” spot on the list—to be reviewed in ten years.

While my father didn’t live to reopen the debate, over the years I have often mused: “If he were alive today, boy, would he eat crow.” And I held to that view despite the recent decline in worldwide democracies—as the Arab Spring morphed into Springtime for Autocrats. Until two nights ago. On PBS’s NewsHour the Pew Research Center was reporting on its recent research into the gap between a strong consensus of scientists and the views of the majority of American citizens on a number of major issues. Some examples: 87 percent of scientists believe there is a connection between global warming and human cause; the American people, barely 50 percent.  An 88-percent consensus of scientists say Genetically Modified Foods are safe for consumption; only 37 percent of citizens agree. Eighty-six percent of scientists say that vaccines are safe and effective; only 68 percent of citizens agree.

Gads, how could that many people (the keepers of the world’s greatest democracy) have factual bases to confidently contradict a consensus of experts in the field—particularly given the power of the internet to disseminate information so broadly. Going further into their report, NewsHour anchor Gwen Ifill showed clips of interviews with a few people who held those contrarian views. In response to the question of why they disagreed with the facts presented by a consensus of leading scientists, one emblematic comment stood out: I disagree because I have my own facts.

I shut off the TV and sat in the dark to consider this contradiction. Quietly at first, then loud enough to make me bolt up in search of the source, I heard my father’s voice: Nice going, smart guy, you have democratized facts. I’m taking the internet off the list.

Guest Blog: Dorie Clark on Repairing a Damaged Professional Relationship

Dorie Clark, a strategy consultant and speaker for such clients as Google, Yale University, Microsoft, and the World Bank, recently published the following article in a Harvard Business Review blog. Dorie is an Adjunct Professor of Business Administration at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, and author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future. You can follow Dorie on Twitter at @dorieclark.

If you’ve spent enough time in the workforce, you almost certainly have a trail of damaged professional relationships behind you. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad manager or employee; it’s simply a fact that some people don’t get along, and when we have to rely on each other (to finish the report, to execute the campaign, to close the deal), there are bound to be crossed wires and disappointments.

Dorie-ClarkWhen conflict happens, many of us try to disengage — to avoid the person around the office, or limit our exposure to them. That’s a fine strategy if your colleague is peripheral to your daily life; you may never have to work with the San Diego office again. But if it’s your boss or a teammate, ignoring them is a losing strategy. Here’s how to buck up and repair a professional relationship that’s gone off the rails.

First, it’s important to recognize that making the effort is worthwhile. Obviously it’ll ratchet tension down at the office if you’re not glaring at your colleague every time they enter the room. But resolving this tension will actually aid your own productivity. A core tenet of efficiency expert David Allen’s Getting Things Done approach is “closing open loops” – i.e., eliminating unresolved matters that nag at your mind. Just as you can’t rest easy until you respond to that scheduling request, you’ll have a much harder time focusing professionally if you’re constantly in the midst of fraught encounters.

Next, recognize your own culpability. It’s easy to demonize your colleague (He turned in the report late! She’s always leaving work early!). But you’re almost certainly contributing to the dynamic in some way, as well. As Diana McLain Smith – author of The Elephant in the Room: How Relationships Make or Break the Success of Leaders and Organizations – told me in an interview, “You may be focusing on another person’s downside – and then starting to behave in ways that exacerbate it.” If you think your colleague is too quiet, you may be filling up the airtime in meetings, which encourages them to become even quieter. If you think he’s too lax with details, you may start micromanaging him so much, he adopts a kind of “learned helplessness” and stops trying at all. To get anywhere, you have to understand your role in the situation.

Now it’s time to press reset. If you unilaterally “decide” you’re going to improve your relationship with your colleague, you’re likely to be disappointed quickly. The moment they fail to respond to a positive overture or (yet again) display an irritating behavior, you may conclude that your effort was wasted. Instead, try to make them a partner in your effort. You may want to find an “excuse” for the conversation such as the start of a new project or a New Year’s Resolution, which gives you the opportunity to broach the subject. “Jerry,” you could say, “On past projects, sometimes our perspectives and work styles have been a little different. I want to make this collaboration as productive as possible, so I’d love to brainstorm with you a little about how we can work together really well. Would that be OK with you?”

Finally, you need to change the dynamic. Even the best of intentions – including an agreement with your colleague to turn over a new leaf – can quickly disintegrate if you fall back into your old patterns. That’s why McLain Smith stresses the importance of disrupting your relationship dynamic. In the aftermath of a conflict, she suggests actually writing down a transcript of what was said by each party, so you can begin to see patterns – where you were pushing and she was pulling. Over time, it’s likely that you’ll be able to better grasp the big picture of how you’re relating to each other, and areas where you can try something different. (If you were less vehement, perhaps she’d be less resistant.)

We often imagine that our relationships are permanent and fixed – I don’t get along with him because he’s a control freak, and that’s not likely to change. But we underestimate ourselves, and each other. It’s true that you can’t give your colleagues a personality transplant and turn them into entirely different people; we all have natural tendencies that emerge. But clearly understanding the dynamics of the relationship – and making changes to what’s not working – can lead to markedly more positive results.

Taking Sojo’s Lead

Sojo

As soon as the autumn sun fell behind the mountain, the air turned cold, and I knew I was in trouble. My dog Sojo and I had left Boston later than planned, and we hit Vermont’s Jamaica State Park in the fading light.

It was our annual pilgrimage. Every October, my husband Bruce and I would go to Vermont to celebrate our birthdays and our anniversary. Most years, I’d leave ahead of Bruce, taking Sojo with me to keep me company.

About two-thirds of the way there, I’d break up our three-hour drive by hiking with Sojo to the top of Little Ball Mountain, a 40-minute jog up a steep trail that peels off to the right a few miles down the rushing West River.

We’d done it many times, Sojo and I, and though it was late, I knew the trail well enough to think we had ample time to get up and back before the sun set.

What I hadn’t counted on was taking a wrong turn just after leaving the top. A half-hour down the trail, I realized my mistake. By then it was too late to retrace my steps and find the right trail in the quickly disappearing light. I quelled my anxiety and considered my options. With nothing to keep me warm overnight, I knew I had to get down somehow—and quickly.

“Sojo,” I called. “Take us home.” A good distance ahead, she stopped and turned, running back toward me, then past me, up the trail we’d just come down. That, I knew, wouldn’t work. We’d have to find a new way down, one we’d never taken before.

“No,” I called. “Wrong way.” She stopped, confused. I pointed ahead and began walking forward. “This way. Take us home—now.”

She turned and sped past me up the trail, without hesitation, a black furry Border Collie mix, all four white paws scurrying ahead, doing what she was born to do. At each of the three forks we passed, she stopped to make sure I was with her, then took off one way and not the other, until we ended up at the lot where my car was parked, barely visible in the twilight.

“Yay, Sojo!” I cried, hugging her to me.

“Good girl! Well done!” She grinned and wagged her tail, as if it was nothing, then jumped happily in the backseat for the last 30-minute stint to our home.

Following Sojo’s lead was the wisest thing I could have done in that moment, and as I have gradually come to realize, in any moment that really matters in life.

  • Lost interest in your job? Watch a dog go about the job of making you happy with renewed pleasure each morning.
  • Angry at a friend or spouse? Watch just how quickly and fully a dog forgives.
  • Bored to tears with the same ol’ same ol’? Watch a dog jump for joy every time you throw him the same ball—again and again and again.
  • Feeling tired? Watch a dog have the good sense to take a quick nap, then be ready to go on a moment’s notice.
  • Sick of the same food for lunch? Watch a dog gratefully gobble up the same food morning and night, day after day—and with relish, no less!
  • Stumped and confused? Watch a dog dig for hours until she unearths that confounding bone.
  • Unable to express what you’re truly feeling? Watch a dog grin, wag her tail, jump up, bark, cower, look guilty, hold up a paw beseechingly, slink away, or stare lovingly into your eyes.

And people wonder if dogs are sentient beings!

Well, I can you tell you this: After 14 years with Sojo, it strikes me she was the more sentient one in the partnership, always leading me home whenever I felt lost.

This past week, Bruce and I along with our dear friend Scott helped Sojo find her way home. After spending a pitch-perfect July body-surfing in the ocean, swimming in the pool, catching Frisbees, and leading me home from the town dock each evening, Sojo was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

It came as a terrible shock, her vitality so palpable only a few days earlier. Then again, it also made complete sense: so like her to grab all the joy she could while here, to keep up a cheerful front, and not to complain even when the pain got so bad she couldn’t eat.

So that’s why, after taking a few days to say our goodbyes, we who love her most let her go—knowing the mornings won’t be as bright, the nights as cozy, nor the days as friendly with Sojo no longer by our sides. As she went, I imagined her spirit soaring toward the heavens with a quick backward glance to say her goodbyes before snatching a Frisbee out of the sky and taking off for home.

I sure hope we get to see her there, because I know we will never stop missing her here.

 

Meetings, Bloody Meetings

Imagine the scene. A bemused wife turns to her husband as he works in bed:

“Why can’t you do your work while you’re at work?”

“There isn’t any time,” he tells her. “I have to go to meetings.”

“Do you think it would make things easier if I came and slept at the office?”

“Why don’t you come and sleep at the meetings? Everyone else does.”

So begins the popular training video starring John Cleese on how to run meetings. The curious thing is, as novel and funny as the video is, the advice is woefully routine: plan meetings in advance, prepare a detailed agenda, pre-notify attendees, control the discussion, and summarize and record decisions.

Anyone unfamiliar with this advice has undoubtedly been sleeping through many a meeting, while anyone familiar with it knows the awful truth: that meetings, bloody meetings aren’t so simple a problem to solve.

Sure, planning agenda helps (in fact, a lot), as does coming prepared and summarizing decisions and next steps. But this advice cannot solve the biggest problem of all: the boorish behavior that puts your teeth on edge, like nails down a blackboard, inviting you to act equally boorishly—by coming late, or taking the bait, or checking your emails, or just checking out altogether—anything to escape that bloody meeting!

The problem—the one that isn’t so easy to solve—springs from the inescapably interdependent, time-compressed reality of today’s organizations. We just can’t manage the complexity, or the urgency, of the many issues we face today without depending on each other to see, do, know, think of, or speak to different aspects of those issues. Hence, the need for meetings.

What makes those meetings problematic is our collective tendency to shirk the special responsibilities that go with increased interdependence and decreased time—our responsibility not just to influence but to be influenced, not just to argue with but to learn from others, not just to debate but to create, not just to tolerate different views but to use them to invent solutions no one person alone could imagine.

Clarifying agendas, goals, roles, rights, responsibilities, decisions, and next steps—sure, all of it will help, but none of it will take the place of learning how to play and work well with others. For more, see Meetings—For Better or For Worse