Monday, June 29, 2009

Little Things Matter

We were sitting at a local Tim Hortons with a group of friends and family last Friday evening and the conversation soon turned to a topic that has been the subject of countless conversations in the last few days: the passing away of Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett on June 25, 2009. Michael Jackson's life work is impressive, but his musical genius was at its height in the eighties. Farrah Fawcett's role in the television series Charlie's Angels and her infamous poster made her an icon of the seventies. (How many of us women in our late thirties and forties sported the Farrah Fawcett hairstyle once upon a time?) Funny how some people define the style and culture of certain decades. Of course, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones ruled the sixties and the television series Friends and the band U2 had a huge following in the nineties. Who has defined the new millenium so far?

This got me thinking about my own life, who and what has made a lasting impression on who I have become? I attended a conference with Dr. Phil a few years ago and he asked us to take a few minutes to write down the ten most impactful events of our lives (positive or negative) and then to list the five people who have marked us the most deeply (encouraging us to think beyond our parents and spouse). This was a very revealing exercise. I was reminded that sometimes a fleeting encounter with someone or a seemingly ordinary day could leave an indelible mark on your life.

My mother worked full time as a physician - which was a rare occurence for a woman in the early sixties. This meant she had to rely on child care for my sister and I. The French Catholic Convent ran a day care near our home. The good sisters had already taught me how to count, read and write my letters so when it was time to enroll me into school, I had to skip kindergarten and was the youngest student in grade 1. I never did quite fit in and had a hard go of it. I fondly remember my grade 1 teacher, Mme Boudreau, who had been so kind to me. I still cherish the book she had given me as a prize for my reading ability. Maybe that is what got me started as an author? (my third publication is due out this Fall!)

Once, I ran into a woman who used to work with me. I didn't know her name but I recognized her face. She told me that she had attended one of my workshops a few years back and had admired my dynamic presentation style especially my sense of humour and passion for the subject. She came to see me at the end of the workshop to congratulate me. She confided that she would love to do public speaking but she was much too shy. She wished she had my self-confidence. I replied that self-confidence was a state of mind. You have to feel the fear and do it anyway. I told her that I was sure that she could be a good public speaker if she put her mind to it. Well, she took my advice to heart apparently and signed up for a Toastmasters group. She ended up changing the focus of her career and became a public speaker giving educational talks and leading workshops. She wanted to thank me for having made a difference in her life. Who knew? A few simple words of encouragement to a participant in a workshop was a life changing moment in someone's life!

This is my challenge to you this week: make a list of the the persons or the events that has defined each of the decades of your life. Does it shed light on who you have become? Is there anyone you would like to thank?

With the knowledge that sometimes little things can change the direction of your life what would you do differently today?

Monday, June 22, 2009

Life is a stage

On Saturday evening, it was opening night for our community theater's annual Murder Mystery in which I play the part of a slightly demented nurse (it's so much fun playing the villain!). Have you ever been a participant in a Murder Mystery? Characters wander around mingling with guests. They share bits and pieces of information about themselves and their relationship with other characters. Guests can ask them questions which actors will answer in character.

In this play there is no script to learn by heart instead we had to do a number of scenes in which our character shares crucial information that would help participants piece together clues that would point to the murderer. It is all improvisation. No two shows are exactly the same.

Unlike typical plays, actors in murder mysteries do not rehearse lines and blocking (where to stand on stage). Rather, the actors spend many hours doing what we call "table work", creating a detailed biography for their character: when they were born and where, what kind of life they led, what brought them to the events of this day, and what possible motives they could have to kill the victim. Then, each actor takes a turn sitting on the "hot seat". Fellow actors ask all kinds of questions in character which forces you, as an actor, to get well acquainted with your character (their personality, fears, hopes, and motivations).

Usually an actor works within the confines of the story as it is written by the author. An actor memorizes his lines and adds his own unique touch through voice intonations, facial expressions, or physical actions but he cannot change the outcome of the story. In a Murder Mystery, an actor works in partnership with the author and the audience and is an active co-creator of the story.

I would say that for some people life is a stage where they perform the same play over and over again. For these people, life is like a Shakespearean play where everyone has a pre-determined role and destiny. Their character has a script, a prescribed way of being. They act their part to fulfill the expectations of others. The character they play limits the actions they can take in life (or so they believe).

I prefer being the author of my own life. I like the idea of improvising my next move as I go with the flow of life. My past serves as an interesting Back Story to my character that neither predicts or confines me into a role. As I reflect on my past I can learn from what has worked well, what was tricky and what I could do differently. I take ownership for my choices, good or bad.

Like the interactions actors have with the audience in a murder mystery, the people I meet along the way help me co-create the scenario of my life. You can't live your life in a bubble without being touched by the people that come into your life and why would you want to? At the same time, you can't let the people in your life dictate the road you should take. Rather, invite them to discover the route and destination along with you.

I know that in the end, I am writing how my story evolves and how it will end. Your life can be as big as your imagination. All you need to do is believe that anything is possible.

If you want to know more about improvisation and the life lessons it teaches us, check out the website of my friend and colleague, Rob Nickerson.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Do you remember how to play?

I hate to admit it but I was envious... After the first 4 km of our run on a warm summer day, my husband and his running buddy decided that it was enough running for a day and returned home. Meanwhile, even though I was feeling kind of sluggish, I continued on running with my girl friend. This was supposed to be my long run of the week (I am training for a half marathon this September) and I was going to run my 10 km no matter what - that was the plan and I had to stick to the plan. (I tend to be very determined - my husband would say that I am stubborn...) After a tough 10km run I came back home to find my husband, his buddy and a next door neighbour sitting in the back yard drinking beer and having a good old time. An impromptu party! My girlfriend joined them for a while until she had to leave for an appointment. I was there physically but I could not join them psychologically because in my mind I was running through my "to do" list. The "10km run" was now checked off my list but there was still at least 10 other things I wanted to get done by end of day. I was smiling outwardly but inside, I was stressing: "I can't afford to sit back and relax right now, I have too many important things to do. No time for fun yet." Even worse, I needed my husband's help to get the biggest chore done: cleaning out the basement to prepare of a guest who would be spending a couple of nights that week. So here I was getting upset at my husband for relaxing in the sun and getting angry at myself for being unable to let go and join him.

When I did my certification in Myers-Briggs Type Inventory Levels I and II (MBTI), the trainers led us through some exercises to highlight the differences between types. I recall vividly doing an exercise that was meant to differentiate between people who are judging and perceiving. People with a preference for judging like to have closure and make quick decisions. They are the type of people who have a mile long list of things to do. Checking off an item on that list gives them immense satisfaction. People who have a preference for perceiving like to go with the flow and keep their options open. They don't like to make plans ahead of time and leave themselves lots of flexibility to seize opportunities as they emerge. If you were to plan a trip with someone who is judging on the MBTI scale they would have the plane tickets and the hotels booked way ahead of time and would most likely have a detailed itinerary for the trip that describes the planned activities for each day (what museums / sites to be visited, where to eat and even a list of local souvenirs to pick up as momentos). If you are more of a perceiving type on the MBTI scale, you might book the tickets closer to the date of departure, have an idea of where to stay on the first few nights and then trust that you will figure out what to do next as you chat with the locals or exchange tips and tricks with other tourists.

So back to the exercise that the trainer led us through. On one flipchart she wrote "I can play anytime" and on the other flipchart she wrote "I can play once my work is done". We were then asked to go stand in front of the flipchart with the sentence that most related to ourselves and explain our choices. Guess what flipchart I chose? Of course, I chose the flipchart that said "I can play once my work is done." The problem is that the work is NEVER done in my opinion so I almost never let myself play. Honestly, I don't think I remember how to play...

Which flipchart would you have chosen? Why? Are you content with your choice? If not, how can you re-establish a better balance?

A UCLA study demonstrated that at five years of age we engage in creative tasks 98 times a day, laugh 113 times, and ask 65 questions. By age forty-four, we are creative only twice a day, we laugh only 11 times, and ask a measly 6 questions. I was not surprised to see those stats but nonetheless I think it is a shame. How are we supposed to ride the constant wave of change if we don't take the time to imagine new ways of doing things, finding the humor in every day life and asking the "why" and "why not" questions more often?

I would like to reverse this trend. Ghandi said " Be the change you want to see in the world". So I will start with changing myself. This week, I will experiment living without a "to do" list and let the current of life inspire my actions. What about you?

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Power of the Mind

I was pleasantly surprised. It was almost noon on a Saturday morning and I was working out in the basement. I turned on the television to keep my mind off the boring repetitions of a weight lifting routine and the pain in my muscles. I happened to stumble on a program called Positive Living. The show is about the power of positive thinking and the attitude of gratitude.

I thought: "How odd it is that this show made it to production and is actually on the air. I wonder how host Aida Memisevic, who is also the producer of the show, made the pitch to the network executives to convince them to invest in this new approach to television. There must be a market for this type of "touchy-feely" show out there (I know that I am their target audience, even though we are in the minority...). Is this a sign that hard wired capitalists and materialists are changing? The age of Aquarius?

I wish I was the one who launched this television show on positive living. It would have brought my two loves together: personal growth and development and entertainment education. Maybe this is a growing market and there is a need for this type of television. I better get started right away on a business plan!

In this episode (#103), Memisevic interviews Debbie Muir, a sports coach best known for her work in synchronized swimming. She coached Olympic medalist Mark Tewksbury, a Canadian from Calgary. Tewksbury burst out of the water at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 following the come-from-behind victory in the 100 meter backstroke. Going into Barcelona, Tewksbury was ranked fourth in the world and most pundits picked one of the powerful American swimmers to win gold.

Debbie Muir tells us how she helped Tewksbury achieve this goal by using special techniques to help his brain perform better. Physically, Tewksbury was on tract for a win but something was missing in his performance. Muir asked him "what is preventing you from excelling?" Tewksbury admitted that he did not feel he had what it took to beat the American Jeff Rouse, his closest contender. He had never managed to beat him. The coach asked Tewksbury to make a list of the reasons why he thought he could not beat Rouse at the Olympics. He came up with a list of over 60 reasons. Muir and Tewksbury systematically identified ways to surmount each and every one of the items on that list. They also worked on visualization techniques. Tewksbury imagined himself in the water beating Rouse for the gold medal and then standing on the podium, hearing the Canadian anthem playing and the applause of the crowd. And it worked! Debbie Muir's belief is that you get more of what you focus on. Tewksbury was creating a self-fulfilling prophecy by believing that Jeff Rouse was better than him. It was Tewksbury's brain that was a handicap to winning, not his physical ability.
Change your thinking and change your life.
You may not be an Olympic athlete but I bet you have your own personal Olympic feat you would love to accomplish, whether it is in sports or in your professional life or personal life.

  • What do you believe about yourself that will help you succeed?
  • Are there any beliefs, conscious or unconscious, that may prevent you from trying?
  • And if you don't even try how will you succeed?

Imagine you are a coach like Debbie Muir.
  • What would you tell yourself?
  • What do you need to acknowledge in order to surmount your mental obstacles and unleash your full potential to succeed?

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Failure leads to success

My daughter who had just started grade 7 at a large high school of 1300 students wanted to audition for the student talent show. She had been taking singing lessons for a few weeks and even though she had made some progress singing in tune she still was no nightingale... She wanted to sing a Celine Dion sappy love song for the show (not exactly what would appeal to most 13 to 18 year olds). We applauded her determination but cautioned her that she would need to practice hard to succeed in this kind of competition. One night, a month later, she announced that the auditions were the following day and that she would try out. My husband and I looked at each other with surprise and apprehension. We had not heard her practice the song or even play it on her CD player to learn the melody. She wasn't ready for the audition. She might be ridiculed and be heart broken. Wanting to shield her from disappointment, I told her that I didn't think she was ready yet. I made a mistake. She was angry with us and felt betrayed. She stormed out of the room crying. To her credit, she went ahead and auditioned anyways. She didn't make it. It did not seem to be such a big deal to her. She was happy she had auditioned. She is going to try out again next year.

Sometimes we shy away from stepping over the boundary of our comfort zone for fear of failing even though our heart tells us it needs to move in that direction to be fulfilled. The thing is, failure paves the way for success.

If we are willing, we can learn from failures. Failures are windows into ourselves. They allow us to take a long hard look at what we are lacking in order to succeed. Failures help us become pro-active. We reflect on the lessons learned and address potential obstacles ahead of time so that we can overcome them on our next attempt.

Failures also shine a light on our strengths and qualities. In order to persevere with our dream we need to reacquaint ourselves with the reason why we tried and failed in the first place. We tap into our will: the passion that fueled our desire to succeed. Failures teach us determination, resolve and optimism.

Margaret Wheatley
is a hero of mine. I once heard her say that the word courage comes from the french word "coeur" (heart). To have courage means that you follow your heart. The heart gives you the strength to overcome the fear. There is no courage if there is no fear. You feel the fear (the fear of failure or the fear or ridicule, etc.) and you do it anyway.

What is it that your heart wants that your are not pursuing for fear of failure?

Take a look at this video clip about men and women who lived disappointments in their early years but persisted and went on to become leaders in their fields.

Failure Video

Some notable quotes on failure:

"The greatest barrier to success is the fear of failure."
-Sven Goran Eriksson

"Failure is only the opportunity to begin again, only this time more wisely."
-Henry Ford

"I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."
-Thomas Alva Edison

"Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm."
-Sir Winston Churchill