Three Words for 2015: Love. Authenticity. Flow.

I stopped making New Year’s resolutions a few years ago. For me, resolutions had become Puritanical slogs of self-deprecation and guilt with an incredibly unhealthy focus on not doing some things I was doing and doing some things I was not. It had to stop. I have no regrets.

The goals I set myself were usually so minor or so divorced from reality that they could not survive contact with daily life. Exercise more. Count calories. Read more. Write more. Weigh less. None of this is helpful in improving my actual life.

And so, I came to the idea of writing a personal mission statement, which I did. It felt good. Rather than a prescriptive list of things to do or not do, habits to be created and broken, the yearly mission statement is a simple statement that helps me recognize and stay focused on my true priorities through the year. The work isn’t managing a specific list of behaviors or thoughts. The work is managing focus so I can constantly make useful choices about how I use my time and where I invest my energy. You can’t do everything. The trick is figuring out what most deserves your time and where you will receive the greatest reward.

And the work of writing my mission statement was useful. It felt good. Then, I read Chris Brogan’s post about choosing three words to carry with me through the year. Three words are precise. Three words can be carried in my head. Three words are handles for what means the most to you and where you will spend your attention, time and energy.

And so, my three words for 2015 are: Love. Authenticity. Flow.

Love because, when things get crazy, it is way too easy to take the people you love the most for granted.

Authenticity because, unless you practice constantly, it is easy to live someone else’s version of your life.

Flow because, more than anything else, I like to imagine things and write them down. I want to do that as much as I possibly can.

And so, without reading my mission statement, you can tell where I am going to place my practice this year. I will try things I have never tried before. I will refuse to do things I have been doing for too long. So yes, it is, again, a list of doing and not doing, except Three Words gives me the framework to evaluate and decide each moment what deserves my focus. I can grow with it and let this become my practice.

I am ready to start a new year and see where it can take me.

Excellence Inspires Excellence

I watch the Winter Olympics, and I feel like writing.

I see the forceful, elegant, laser-focused precision of speed skaters and feel like writing.

I see the massively brave lugers hurtling just beneath the edge of disaster, one twinge or tickle away from catastrophe. I feel like writing.

Its the audacious, reckless freedom of snowboarders. The tightly-controlled strength and artistry of ice skaters. The ability of  skiers to lean in when their brains should be telling them to lean back. The relentless endurance of cross-country skiers.

It all makes me feel like writing.

The truth is this happens all the time. It happens when I watch So You Think You Can Dance. It happens when I watch The Voice. Excellence inspires excellence.

I notice excellence and I feel grateful. I am grateful not only for the performance they have shared. I am grateful to have glimpsed the thousand previous unseen performances hiding inside that one moment of public brilliance. I am grateful when I can see the shape of all those early mornings, late nights. The bruises and cuts and frustrations. The satisfactions delayed. The sacrifice of normal life to achieve something extraordinary.

And here’s the thing. You don’t have to be an Olympic athlete or a world-class dancer or an astonishing singer to feel the draw. There is something inside of you that wants expression. There is something inside that wants you to commit. There is something excellent that wants to get out.

When I watch the Winter Olympics, I am not watching only the beauty of that one, rare performance. I am watching the urgent, inspiring beauty of a lifetime commitment.

You have it. I have it. It is time for us to get started.


We all have our superpowers. Some people can match pants, shirt and tie. Others can dance or tell jokes. Some people always remember exactly where they parked the car when they leave the store. Some people keep impossibly white teeth no matter how much coffee they drink.

My superpower is enthusiasm.

I have the ability to become irrationally exhuberant about things I care about and remain so long after good sense and social norms suggest I cool off.

Enthusiasm carries me through my days. Enthusiasm multiplies my projects and keeps my to-do lists from ever shortening.

Enthusiasm is why I am known to sing or whistle as I move about a room.

Enthusiasm is the explanation for the soundtrack always playing in my head.

Enthusiasm keeps me positive and helps me focus on tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.

Enthusiasm protects me from disappointment and shields me, when necessary, from self-doubt.

Not everyone is enthusiastic about my enthusiasm. Some find my relentlessly positive outlook off-putting. Some find it grating and naive. I am sorry for them. The things in this life that are worth doing are worth doing with exhuberance and steadfast resolve.

I am not, as some might say, a dilettante. I am an explorer, hoping never to face exhaustion, never to run past the pale of curiosity. The world is exceedingly, unendingly interesting if one has only the energy and the patience and the unflagging resolve to pay attention, acknowledge and appreciate.

The world does not always require genius or brilliance or even, at times, much intelligence. What the world wants most is commitment, an honest investment. What the world requires is enthusiasm.

Better Version of Me

There is, I think, a better version of me, standing somewhere slightly out of sight. He is a little more creative, a little more active and a little more focused than I am. He wakes up 30 minutes earlier than I do so he can have time to read and reflect before he starts his day. He runs at least three times each week. He meditates. He writes everyday and always finishes what he starts, even if it isn’t always satisfying in the way he has expected.

He prioritizes well and focuses intently on the matter at hand so he can get things done.

He is 20 pounds lighter but he is isn’t vain and never gloats.

I glimpse this person from time to time. You may have seen him yourself on occasion. He is hard to pin down. He enjoys the attention that comes from standing just behind the corner. He craves the adoration that comes from not being in the room.

He is elusive. He is skittish. I have never reached him directly. I have never meet his immediate gaze.

Still, I have a plan for catching him. I will keep myself moving. I will keep him distracted by practicing those things he does so well.

I am creative. I will practice being a little more creative.

I am active. I will practice being a little more active.

I am focused. I will practice on directing my focus more quickly where it belongs.

He isn’t so special. The ingredients of his genius are within my reach. I just need to continue working with the pieces. I need to keep moving. He will, at some point, make a mistake. He will hesitate or stumble the wrong way around a corner. At that moment, he and I will be standing in the very same room. We will see each other as we are – directly with no concealment.

I will introduce myself though he already knows me so well.

I will seem different to him. Better. Stronger. More focused.

He will seem different to me. Specific. Attainable. Nothing special.

The Conditions are Always Impossible

Doris Lessing died earlier this week. I can’t offer a proper obituary. I have never read her work. The Golden Notebook is on my list of things to read. And still, I am grateful to her for the gift of this quote, which has been following me around all week:

“Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.”

Her words are finding me at every turn. I find them in my tweets, my blogs and now, endlessly, in my own head. It is that song playing softly in the background, which I cannot get out of my head. It is that familiar, unnamed face I see in the hallways and on the elevators as I go about my day. It is the message inside a hundred thousand fortune cookies. It is, I think, the voice of the universe telling me something subtle and simple and true.

There is something you are meant to do. Do that thing right now. Keep doing that thing until you’ve got it figured out. It won’t get easier. Your life is never going to be simpler or more ideal. You will never feel more inspired. You have everything you need to get started. Anything else you will find along the way.

Be Authentic. Help Others Be Authentic.

Lately, I have been given opportunities to try on some new responsibilities at work. It has been fun. Today I was able to serve on the panel that selects the college’s President’s Award winner. This award is the highest honor given to a student at our school. Candidates are nominated by faculty and staff and then vetted for  academic performance, community service and extracurricular involvement.

Here’s the thing. All the students we interviewed were excellent. Each comes from a different walk of life with different obstacles, experiences and academic accomplishments. All of their bona fides were uniformly impressive. Their resumes and GPAs stack nicely.

Here’s the other thing. None of that stuff matters. What impressed me most about each of the students I met was his or her passion. These students presented their authentic selves. They were comfortable, honest and sometimes delightfully weird.

Every one of these students is going to be a bright light. They seem to know something that other people don’t yet recognize. They understand the power of being themselves.

These students are passionate about their lives and their learning. They understand how the work they are doing and the sacrifices they are making relate to their future selves.

One student is passionate about mathematics. Another is passionate about caring for others. Another is passionate about snowboarding and family. Another about helping others laugh through adversity. These students are really interesting, really talented, really unique people. And I am only now getting to know them.

Some of them have been in my classes. I have helped some in the library or chatted for a few minutes in a hallway, but I had no idea who they really were and what compelled them.

I can’t help feeling cheated. I should have allowed myself to get to know these students much sooner. I should have made these connections on day one. It would have made me a better teacher and mentor. It would have made me a better steward of their time.

I also can’t help wondering who else is sitting in my library, studying quietly. What weird, authentic self is quietly waiting to be recognized.

I can’t help thinking that I should be meeting these students and my first question shouldn’t be “What are you working on?” or “How can I help?” My first question should be “What do you love to learn about?” or “What are you passionate about doing?”

People who work with students should ask these questions first. Probably anybody who works with people should ask these question first. The people around us are talented, energetic and unique. They are greatly gifted. The problem is they may not know it. They may not see it in themselves, but it is there and it is powerful when it is discovered.

The best thing we do for the people who come to us for learning is to authentic with them, listen and encourage them to be authentic too.

More Than Content

I have been thinking about Jim Rettew’s comments about the Idea Industry and how treating ideas and inspiration as commodities limits how we can interact with and use those ideas.

The Idea Industry is way bigger than TED. It includes writers like Jonah Lehrer and Malcolm Gladstone, podcasts and, yes, bloggers.

As one of those bloggers, I sometimes wonder what it is I am actually doing when I write for other people to read. Am I just moving ideas around from place to place, pointing to interesting sites that others might find inspiring or, at least, amusing for a short while? Or does my work as a blogger contribute something greater?

We often talk about blogs and books and articles and movies as content, as if it were something physical that resides inside something else. A specific, discrete something with its own properties than can be placed in a vessel, carried somewhere else and then transferred to another vessel. That is the connotation of content. In this model, art is about information transfer.

Blogs and books and articles and movies can be more than just content. Content is information. If blogging is just about information transfer then it is easily done and pretty much anyone can do it.

My best blog posts, the one’s that get comments and get people interested, are the posts that tell stories. Good blog posts share something from personal experience and connect it to the experience of other people. That is what we can do here to add value. We can tell stories. We can tell stories about ourselves, people we know and people we invent. We can tell stories as a way to connect insights to experience.

Come to think of it, this is what great teachers do, too. They move beyond lecture and tell interesting stories to help students make their own insights.

Come to think of it, this is what Jesus and Buddha did. They didn’t lecture or preach a lot. They pretty much went around telling people interesting stories that connected ideas to experience. That’s how major movements get born.

The way we think about what we do determines the value of what we do. If we trap ourselves into the act of creating content, that is all we will ever have to offer. We can offer more of ourselves and help make the best ideas come to life.

We can tell stories.

See Farther, Work Faster: A Workplace Prayer

At some point in your career, I hope you are asked to work at the edge of your limits. I hope someone needs you to offer up more than you believe you are able to provide. I hope you are asked to see farther and work faster than you ever thought possible. That’s where growth happens. That’s where you make yourself vulnerable. That’s where you discover your limits. That’s where you surprise yourself by what you are able to accomplish and by what others around you are able to accomplish because of your support.

You will find yourself failing. You will find yourself falling behind. Keep at it. There’s no prize for taking it easy. There’s no prize for doing what everyone knows can be done. Do hard things. Help other people do hard things. Rest when you must but do not stop. Be more than you already are. Be what is needed. Be what is required. See farther. Work faster. Be ready.

Creative Advice from Ira Glass

I have been writing off and on for 24 years. I’m not really sure why I do it. Sometimes I write because I feel like I have to. Sometimes I write because I feel like there are stories stuck inside of me. Sometimes I write because I have ideas in my head that I don’t really understand and I want to understand them better.

I take writing pretty seriously. I stress out about writing. I talk about writing. I read about writing. I pretty much obsess about writing. The one thing I don’t do enough, it turns out, is actually writing.

The writers I admire most say that the secret to being a great writer is writing everyday. Just writing and writing and writing. It makes sense, but it isn’t particularly encouraging advice when the writing feels so thin and poor on the page.

Ira Glass says that’s normal. In fact, mediocrity is part of the process. All good artists start out being mediocre and they are dissatisfied by their own mediocrity. This dissatisfaction dissuades most people from sticking with it. Don’t give up. The cure for mediocre art is to create lots and lots of mediocre art. The fact that you recognize your own art’s mediocrity is a sign of good taste. Keep working at it. Work at it for years. Slowly, you will close the gap. Someday, your art will be as good as your taste, but only if you stay with it and only if you do it a lot.

Here’s how Ira Glass says it:

Keep doing it.

Poems Belong Everywhere

I love poems, but I don’t always particularly enjoy poetry.

I like the way a really good poem slices through the baggage of words and gets to the truth of things. I like the way a really good poem makes familiar objects seem unfamiliar. I like way a really good poem can surprise you, catch you off guard and force you to acknowledge beliefs you did not realize you held.

I love poems, but I have a terrible time with Wordsworth, Yeats, Keats and the crew. There was a time when I assumed that Eliot, Stevens and cummings spoke with ideas and a voice more rarified and brilliant than my own. I bashed my mind against their verse, trying to unlock their elevated ideas. It never happened, so eventually I stopped.

Then I started reading Kerouac and Ginsberg, Billy Collins and Mary Oliver and I began to understand poems again. Poems are a kind of meditation. Poems are moments of complete attention where the object and the subject disappear. Poems are acts of gratitude. Poems are declarations not of how things should be but declarations of how things really are. Poems are prayers.

Poems are useful. They have a purpose in every day life. The problem is, too often, poetry gets in the way of poems. Poetry makes poems into an abstraction, an idea of a thing rather than the thing itself. We teach ourselves to fear poetry in high school and then feel ashamed about that fear for the rest of our lives.

I particularly like the way Billy Collins puts it, “It is a good thing to get poetry off the shelf and more into public life.” His 2012 TED Talk shares some ideas on how this might work. I was particularly amazed by the animated poem mashup he undertook to bring 5 of his terrific poems to a new kind of life.

Take a look:

What do you think about the idea of poems in public life? Where does the world need poems? How can we get them there?