On BIF2017 and giving a shit

There's enough to go around BIF2017.jpg

My big takeaway from the #bif2017 annual innovation conference is this:

Look at what you really give a shit about and then go do something about it.

This is the best way to feel fully alive and leave the world a better place.

Nothing changes when we sit on the sidelines. Or worse, it does change, but not how we want.

  • More people starve from poverty. (@eastvanbrand)
  • Crazy, narcissistic, self-serving billionaires get into office. (@alanwebber)
  • Teachers check out. (@100kin10)
  • People with cardiac issues don’t check back in with their doctors. (@MGHHeartHealth)
  • Systems of inequities and injustices oppress and kill people, bodily and/or in spirit. (@taliqtillman, @carrolldesign, @tenygross)

Complacency and apathy create danger. 

Accept the offer, know you are enough

Oh, but when we “accept the offer” of what life dishes out (@jazzcode),

recognize that we can’t go back to what was (@CajunAngela),

free the talented blue lobster people (@dscofield),

realize we are enough (@taliqtillman),

we can move mountains.

Especially when we get clear on what we fiercely care about.

The "give a shit" litmus test

When it comes to getting clear, the “give a shit” litmus test is a much better decision filter to me than the soft, passive words like purpose, passion, personal brand (gag). 

Language is powerful. It can oppress, judge, bore, shake us awake and kick our ass.

A Fortune 50 client today asked me to help her articulate a clearer purpose for her organization. Emboldened by BIF2017, I asked what she and her colleagues really “give a shit about” beyond the polished brand narrative. Now we were talking, for fu*k’s sake.

As an aside, if you’re someone who is offended by swearwords or think it’s lazy to use them, I urge you to read “Holy Shit: A Brief History of Swearing” by Melissa Mohr.

People swear about what they care about. As Carmen Medina (@milouness) said, some people deserve to be called assholes. And sometimes those assholes can open doors for you if you're looking forward.

Mohr tells us that “swearwords are the most powerful words we have with which to express extreme emotion, whether negative or positive…we need irreproachably formal and unassailably decent speech, but we also need the dirty, the vulgar, the wonderful obscenities and oaths that can do for us what no other words can.

I give a shit about helping people be heard.

Helping people to challenge the status quo and advocate for positive change in their organizations?  Well sure, that’s part of it, but that doesn’t mobilize anyone, including me.

In today’s world we have to stop the yak, yak, yakking and do something. No more waiting around for the proverbial “them” to save us.

Live your name as it's in the stars

In his story about courageous conversations Courtlandt Butts (@CC_AboutRace) talked about how he was ridiculed about his name in school. When he looked up the meaning of his name he learned that it is “messenger from the island.”

“You will live up to your name as it’s in the stars,” he said.

Today I looked up mine and found it means “Better Warrior.”  No wonder I so love the Rebels at Work tribe.

Following Angela Blanchard’s wise counsel I will continue to help people do the right thing, not the rule thing.

And I will honor grief and gratitude, forgiving the past so that we may all go dancing today.

Who knows, maybe Philip Sheppard (@PhilipSheppard) will be playing his cello.

Rebels at Work at #BIF2017: Celine Schillinger, Dany DeGrave, Lois Kelly, Carmen Medina

Rebels at Work at #BIF2017: Celine Schillinger, Dany DeGrave, Lois Kelly, Carmen Medina

Creativity & Risk-Taking

Here's a recent talk I gave to graduate students at Emerson College about the need to practice courage to become more creative and take more risks.  A student's comment:

My supervisor once asked, why are you so rebellious. I didn't know how to react to such comment, and now I know I was being courageous to speak up.



What's behind my anger, Estonia?

Anger can be foe or friend to rebels. Here's a story about a hard-earned lesson I've learned this week about taming and learning from anger. Under the Stars Kristjan Raud

After all these years maybe I should just get on the damned plane to Estonia and pick it up myself.

On a business trip to Estonia in 2006 I fell in love with a painting in the Kumu Art Museum, which had just opened. The museum was an extraordinary introduction to the art, culture and history of a country that had been occupied by Germany, then Russia, then Germany again in 1941 and then the USSR from 1944 until before finally becoming independent in 1991.

Despite these foreign invaders Estonians preserved their language, their national pride, and their ancient relatives’ worship of spirits of nature. Talk about determination.

After a busy week of speeches, I strolled through the museum on a sunny Saturday morning in May. I walked into a gallery and was captivated by a painting called “Under the Stars” by Estonian artist Kristjan Raud (1865 - 1943). I sat on a bench for over an hour looking at the folkloric painting, letting my mind wander, and in its wandering thinking about joy amid oppression, the healing and inspirational nature of the night sky, and, most of all, the wonderful people whom I had met during the week. They had inspired me with their sense of purpose, optimism, and perspective about anger.

But aren't you angry with the Russians?

Earlier in the week during the annual national marketing conference, which was why I was visiting, a respected Russian professor talked about Russian history and culture for two hours. I asked the conference organizer why Estonians would ever have a speaker about Russia, given what Russia had done to the country and was still threatening to do.

“It’s important for us to understand,” he calmly explained. Rather than be angry and shut down thinking, they were learning from their anger.

I thought a lot about anger when I looked at the painting, too.

Before leaving I scribbled down the name of the artist and the painting on my Museum map and asked the people at the Museum store whether they had a postcard or print of it for sale. Sadly, no.

 Nine year obsession: Stage three agony

Over the last nine years I would often pull out the Museum map with my scrawled notes about the painting and Google it, hoping I could buy a print somewhere. I hit a lot of dead ends.

Eight months ago I wrote to the Museum and asked if they could possibly make a digital print that I could buy. A lovely woman said she would look into it. In January she told me that they could make a print and would I please provide some information for the billing. In April she sent me an invoice, requiring a wire transfer to the country of Estonia, as the Kumu Art Museum is a national museum. At every step I responded immediately, thinking about where to put this digital print of the painting once it arrived.

But over the last month this process has started to drive me nuts, largely because of weird and sometimes stupid problems with wiring the money from my bank to the country of Estonia’s bank. Should be simple, right? Ha!

This morning I stormed into my bank, furious because the latest wire transfer they sent arrived 7.24 Euros short and as a result the Museum can’t send me the painting. The Museum needs me to send the exact amount. My bank has a minimum for wire transfers so I can’t send the exact amount.

To make matters worse, I acted snarky, showing just how ugly anger can be. When the bank manager asked in a condescending tone, “Where is THAT country?” I said, “Near Latvia,” knowing she probably wouldn’t know where that was either. I could have politely and helpfully said, “Near Finland or Russia.” Oh, but my anger was turning me into a snarling animal.

The timing for this bureaucratic inanity is awful. I’m in what Sally Hogshead calls the Stage 3 Agony phase of some creative projects, the most grueling phase where we get stuck, stressed and start thinking the whole project – or our competency to do said project -- sucks. I know if I can slog through this creative hell I may get to Stage 4 – Epiphany and Stage 5 – Finesse. But, as has happened to me before, Agony kills the work. I either consider the project done because I can’t stand the being stuck part or I give up.

So this painting paperwork is setting off what a beloved boss used to call my ”hot Irish head” where my passion turns into obsession and anger. Nothing seems to be moving in the right direction.

After leaving the bank I stopped at FedEx Office to get a poster made for a talk I’m giving at a Harvard Innovation Symposium on Saturday. They opened my thumb drive and found two old PowerPoint presentations but no poster file. Grrrrrrrr……

Good and worked up, I went back to my office and decided to see how much it would cost to fly to Tallinn, go to the Museum, hand them a credit card, and pick up the digital print myself. Enough with the bureaucrats, just make it happened within my own power.

Oh, anger, you torturer and teacher

And then I remembered a hard-earned lesson: What’s behind my anger? Anger is really useful data, if we can calm down enough to be curious about it.

In this case I started wondering why this painting is so important to me. What about it keeps calling me, especially over the past eight months? Is it the painting or something else?

I don’t know about you, but it’s often something else. When I can somewhat objectively dig into that something else, I find helpful answers. Thank you anger, you torturer and teacher, you.

You see, I am struggling to make these new creative endeavors great and in this Agony Phase I am tempted to give up, say they’re “good enough,” or worse, say, “they’ll never be good enough” and quit. Oh, what our terrible self-talk can do to us.

The painting and the Estonian culture represent purpose, determination, hope, and joy to me. On the last night of my 2006 trip I went to the small, out-of-the-way Museum of Occupations in Estonia. How did these people persevere, I kept wondering as I learned more.

“Under the Stars,” I fantasize, will help me persevere, remind me to look up to the night sky and stay open to joy amid struggles. My creative struggles are so much less significant than want Estonians have had to endure.

Now that I’ve wondered about the anger, it’s diffused and I’m a tiny bit wiser.

I don’t really need the painting, after all.

But maybe, just maybe, I’m looking for a good excuse to travel back to a wonderful country rich in history, culture, possibilities and creative fun.

Did I also tell you Estonia is home to the Wife Carrying World Championships?

Finding ideas in unlikely places

I’m sitting in the Surgical Family waiting room at Boston’s famed Mass General Hospital. People are talking quietly or reading hardcover books. A woman in her 40’s wearing black track pants and white sneakers is slumped across two chairs, snoring. An elderly  man sits upright as he naps, his head bobbing down to the collar of his violet dress shirt. Out of the 40 or so people here no one is on a device. There are no televisions or bright lights. We’re all in a quiet waiting womb.

I, and I suspect the others, are feeling vulnerable, unable to concentrate on anything but our loved one. How will the surgery turn out? Will it be easier or more complicated than the doctors’ expected? Will we be able to take our son, daughter, mother, father, wife, husband, sister, best friend home soon or will surprises force a longer hospital stay?

We are all on alert, fully awake and quiet amid the stress of not knowing.

My son was hit by a car two weeks ago while riding his bike back to his dorm in Savannah, Ga. God caught him as he spun from the bike, bounced off the car and kissed the pavement with his beautiful 19 year-old face. He had no concussion,  a miracle. The local hospital stitched up the gash on his forehead, put his finger in a splint, and told him to find a plastic surgeon to repair the four broken bones in his face. So here we are.

Driving by the Charles River this morning at 6 a.m. on our way to the hospital my son turned up the volume of his favorite music group, The Head and the Heart (of all names), and mused, “I am so lucky I don’t have brain damage from bouncing off that windshield.”

This mother bear nodded in fierce agreement. Oh, how lucky we are.

But now I am on edge, waiting for the surgeon’s call.

And I am remarkably creative.

Ideas for an education program that I’ve been wrestling with floated out of nowhere an hour ago. It’s like I was taking dictation from some learned person who said, “Here is what people want to learn and what you need to teach them."

“OK, got it. Wait, slow down. I can’t write down all these ideas fast enough.”

I’ve been struggling to figure out how to put this program together for three weeks and then -- BAM! – done in 20 minutes.

What’s going on?

When we get jolted out of our usual routines ideas can say, “Thank you for taking down all those assumption and anxiety barriers. Now we can stroll right into your brain and you can welcome us.”

Sounds crazy. But research shows that when there’s less activity in our brain’s frontal lobes, we’re more likely to come up with an original idea.

According to Dr. Rex Jung of University of New Mexico, inventive brains are less packed and organized and so nerve traffic is slowed down. This gives the opportunity for more unusual connections to be made even if it takes a little while to do so.

Because my brain is much less full than usual as I sit quietly thinking about not much of anything but my son, my brain has been experiencing what Dr. Jung calls “transient hypofrontality.” This frontal lobe change has allowed my brain to make new connections, to think more creatively if you will.

Ian recoveryThere are far better ways to experience this calm brain state than sitting in a waiting room. Researchers recommend  running, meditating, walking, and other activities that require us to turn off our devices and noisy brain talk  and just be quiet.

My brain was so thoughtful delivering a creative gift of a new idea this morning.

The best gift, however, was the call from the surgeon telling me that my son’s procedure was over and was not as complicated as they had expected. Maybe we should play The Head and the Heart’s “Sounds Like Hallelujah” on the ride home.