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The powerful seduction of ‘powerless’

Where do conspiracy theories come from?

More than 10% of the population still believes that the moon landings were faked. (Even though we can see the landing modules with a telescope).

People make up inane theories about various cabals that are secretly controlling this or that.

In fact, the more information and leverage we each have, the more inclined the culture seems to embrace stories of puppetry, conspiracy and control.

Because it lets us off the hook.

How can you possibly be responsible if there are powerful shady forces working behind the scenes? If you're powerless, it also means you're not at fault if things don't get better.

[Of course, the world isn't fair, and there are people, powerful people, working against you. The best systems open doors, not close them. The best systems work for us, not against us. But that doesn't mean we're powerless, it only means that we have to work ever harder. Harder on the system and harder around it.]

She's been quoted a million times, but people don't really listen to the essence of Marianne Williamson's quote: "Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure."

If we're actually powerful, if our voice, our effort and our contribution matter, it's time to get to work.

This is enervating. It would be so much more comforting if it were up to someone else. Whatever system we are living in or with, it would be nice if it were responsible for what happens next.

On the other hand, knowing that we can connect, publish, inspire, lead, build, describe, invent, encourage and (especially) teach, means that there's no one better than us and no time like right now.

And if it helps, go find, organize and connect with others who feel as committed as you do.

Of course it's frightening. But it's important and it's our turn.

Is it possible there was a misunderstanding?

Is it possible that you misunderstood them, or they misunderstood you?

With your client, employee, vendor, partner, or that random passerby?

The thing that just happened, it sounds terrible, and if they did it on purpose, the way it sure seems to you and to me, that would be horrible.

But before we burn down bridges and ruin everyone's day, just a quick moment to wonder, "what if there was something misunderstood?"

It's a lot easier to ask than it is to go to all the trouble of breaking things.

The magic wand store is closed

It's fun to imagine what we'd do if we had a magic wand, something that with a wave, could produce us the introduction, the funding, the open door, the technology, the breakthrough, the insight, the inspiration, the shortcut…

They stopped making magic wands several millennia ago.

Now that you know that there are no magic wands, a better question is probably:

What do you care enough about that you're prepared to expose yourself to fear, risk and hard work to get?

Batteries not included

It's easy to dream of a strategy or a set of tactics that will make your forward motion feel less like an uphill slog. A perpetual motion machine of progress.

These are few and far between.

The single most important part of any project is the battery, the source of energy, the optimism and effort that turns the long shot into the sure thing, one day at a time.

Better to hire and train and seek out batteries. They're priceless.

The memories we rehearse are the ones we live with

A million things happened to you today. The second bite of your lunch. The red light on the third block of your commute…

Tomorrow, you’ll remember almost none of them.

And the concept that you’d remember something that happened to you when you were twelve is ludicrous.

What actually happened was this: After it (whatever that thing you remember) happened, you started telling yourself a story about that event. You began to develop a narrative about this turning point, about the relationship with your dad or with school or with cars.

Lots of people have had similar experiences, but none of them are telling themselves quite the same story about it as you are.

Over time, the story is rehearsed. Over time, the story becomes completely different from what a videotape would show us, but it doesn’t matter, because the rehearsed story is far more vivid than the video ever could be.

And so the story becomes our memory, the story gets rehearsed ever more, and the story becomes the thing we tell ourselves the next time we need to make a choice.

If your story isn’t helping you, work to rehearse a new story instead.

Because it’s our narrative that determines who we will become.

The confusion about enough

To watch people at work, it seems like we never have enough:

  • We need more social media likes
  • We want more market share
  • We demand more quick wins

And to see them at rest, it seems as though we never have enough:

  • Things to entertain us
  • Shallow friendships
  • Conspicuous displays of success

Which is why people talk about how they’re always falling behind and feel like they don’t have enough time.

But…

Lots of us walk around thinking we do have enough:

  • Education
  • Exposure to difficult topics
  • Situations where we need to change our mind
  • Silence
  • Deep relationships based on trust and commitment

I’m wondering what happens if we flip them?

It’s not the bottom, it’s the foundation

Organizations are built on the work of people who don’t get paid very much, don’t receive sufficient respect and are understandably wary of the promises they’ve been hearing for years.

Calling these folks the bottom of the org chart doesn’t help.

Imagine that throughout your career you were paid as little as legally possible, the last to be hired and the first to be laid off. Imagine that the boss gets more vacation days, doesn’t have to clock in and out, and is actually given control over how he spends his time.

Why is it surprising to bosses, then, that some workers respond to this arrangement by doing as little work as possible?

Here’s the thing: people actually want to do a good job. They want to be proud of their work, they appreciate being engaged, they thrive when they have some measure of control over their day.

Too often, though, the optimistic leader meets the pessimistic front line and distrust undermines all the good intent. The boss loses patience and reverts to the test-and-measure, trust-no-one, scientific-management tradition of dehumanizing the very humans who make the whole project work.

And so, back to being mediocre. Back to high turnover, low trust, no care. Back to workers who don’t believe and bosses who are now cynics.

Mostly, back to an ordinary organization that’s like so many others.

There’s an alternative. But it’s a process, not an event.

Step 1: A commitment, from the top, that this place is going to be different. The commitment is open-ended. It involves leading and showing up and keeping promises, for months and years into the future. It’s non-cynical, and it views leadership as an opportunity, the possibility of serving customers at the very same time you inspire and enable employees.

This is going to take a long time, and it’s not going to be the cheapest path. It turns out, though, in industries where people matter (which is more and more of the work we do) that this path pays for itself eventually.

Step 2: Hire for attitude, not for learned skills. You can teach someone to do just about anything. It’s far more difficult to build an instinct to care. When you hire trustworthy people who are willing to trust you, you have an opportunity to build trust, which enables communication, which allows you to teach, which upgrades everything.

If you are in a hurry to assemble a group of people who can ‘do the work’, you will end up with folks who merely needed a job. On the other hand, if you are willing to invest in people who are enrolled in the journey you’re on, you will end up with a team.

[Corollary: Fire for attitude, fix for skills. The attitudes you put up with will become the attitudes of your entire organization. Over time, every organization becomes what is tolerated]

Step 3: Be clear in actions and words about what’s important. It doesn’t do any good to hire for attitude but only reward for short-term results. If you reward a cynic merely because he got something done, you’ve made it clear to everyone else that cynicism is okay. If you overlook the person who is hiding mistakes because his productivity is high, then you are rewarding obfuscation and stealth.

Who gets the employee of the month parking space? Who gets laid off?

People are watching you. They’re not listening to your words as much as they’re seeking to understand where the boundaries and the guard rails lie, because they’ve learned from experience that people who do what gets rewarded, get rewarded.

Hint: if you tell people something is important but fail to give them the tools and the support and the training that they need to do that important thing, you’ve just told them that it’s not actually important.

Step 4: Be clear and consistent about how we do things around here. It’s going to be a long time before people act like they own the place. After all, you own the place and you don’t even act like you do most of the time.

This job is important. It feeds my family. It pays the rent. It’s connected to my self-esteem. I will act in the interest of my family, not your invisible shareholders.

Step 5: Your problem is not their problem. The people who build the foundation of your business have plenty of things to worry about. Your narrative about your day is not one of them.

Over time, it’s reasonable to expect that an engaged and respectful working environment will lead to ever more big-picture thinking. But it’s naïve and self-defeating to expect a 20-year-old who’s been on the job for a week to make a connection between the customer who just walked in, your big wholesale account, the loan that’s due soon and the espresso he just pulled.

Every day, you’re going to be tested on these five principles. Every day, there’s going to be a moment of urgency, a shortcut presented, a confusion. And in that moment, the first principle is going to come into question.

But this is the foundation, it’s not the bottom. This is the source for all your possibility, for the change you seek to make.

Isn’t it worth it?

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If you do the work, you'll start to see things differently.

The course is $95, but blog readers doing important work can get it for half price by using this link.

It comes with a money-back guarantee and I hope you will check out a few of the lessons before you enroll.

And if you're a freelancer, I hope you'll check out this course as well. It's one of the most popular courses on Udemy, because it works. 

Empathy is a bridge

"Sorry" doesn't mean you caused the pain. It merely means that you see it, that you've felt pain before in your life as well, that you are open to a connection.

Our ability to bring people along is critical because we're playing a long game, even an infinite one. Back and forth, day by day, with many of the same people. One day, it will be reversed, and a classmate or co-worker or competitor will be the one that can listen and care about the pain. A pain that might feel very similar.

Gloating or silence closes the door. Empathy, on the other hand, and the action of speech, of moderation, of connection, can change everything. And if it hasn't been present before, it can start right now.

"I see you. I'm sorry for what you're feeling. How can I help?"

Education is the answer

It almost doesn't matter what the question is, really.

Everyone is an independent actor, now more than ever, with access to information, to tools, to the leverage to make a difference.

Instead of being a cog merely waiting for instructions, we get to make decisions and take action based on what we know and what we believe.

Change what you know, change what you believe, and you change the actions. Learn to see, to understand, to have patience, and you learn to be the kind of person who can make a difference.

Formal education is a foundation, but lifelong, informal education can transform our lives.

And informal education scales. It spreads more easily than ever before. Educated people create other educated people. The standards go up when education is present, because the cost of being the least educated person in your tribe is high.

Ignorance, on the other hand, can spread as well. When the cultural dynamic in your circle is that ignorance is prized, it will pull others down and lead to more ignorance.

We can learn techniques, sure, but also empathy, curiosity and patience.

Arguing is futile, because arguing presumes that we can use force of will to change minds. And force begets force. Education, on the other hand, involves enrollment, and volunteers in search of answers can learn quickly.

The path forward, it seems, is to connect. To earn enrollment in having others join you in a journey of education. If you can teach something, find someone who will benefit and teach them. And if you can connect and make education accessible, it creates a new standard for the people you care about.

[Heads up: The last day for early-bird discount tickets to my only-time-this-year live seminar in NY is tomorrow. I hope you can join us… we're gathering the tribe for a much needed chance to connect in person. It will be eye-opening, affirming and perhaps game-changing for those who can join us.]

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